of 288 /288
Isabel Flick’s life story is co-authored with Heather Goodall, a friend and historian who has researched widely into Aboriginal and general history in NSW and whose first book, Invasion to Embassy, was awarded the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australian History in 1997. Isabel asked Heather to assist her in 1998 to research and write her life story by recording her memories and editing the transcripts. By the time Isabel suddenly became seriously ill late in 1999, she had recorded many hours about her early life and the little- understood tensions in rural townships in the 1950s and 1960s. When it became clear her illness was terminal, she passed the work of completing the book over to Heather, who has since this time worked closely with Isabel’s family to take up the story of Isabel’s later life and her search for understand- ing of her community’s history. As it has taken shape, Isabel’s life story is told largely in her own words, but now incorporates insights from her family and close friends and colleagues, many of whom were those who knew her best throughout her turbulent life. One of Isabel’s many strengths was her ability to form deep and productive relationships with non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal people. The contributions to the book, as well as those segments about Isabel’s later years which have been authored by Heather, reflect those relationships with white Australians and others as well as Isabel’s complex and dynamic engage- ments within the Aboriginal community. ‘This is a wonderful book—moving, intelligent, and informative. It combines the genres of autobiography, oral history, and biography to tell the story of the life of a clearly remarkable woman, Isabel Flick. It made me laugh, cry, and think afresh.’ Professor Ann Curthoys Author of Freedom Ride

Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Embed Size (px)

Text of Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Page 1: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel Flick’s life story is co-authored with Heather Goodall, a friend andhistorian who has researched widely into Aboriginal and general history inNSW and whose first book, Invasion to Embassy, was awarded the NSWPremier’s Prize for Australian History in 1997. Isabel asked Heather to assisther in 1998 to research and write her life story by recording her memories andediting the transcripts. By the time Isabel suddenly became seriously ill latein 1999, she had recorded many hours about her early life and the little-understood tensions in rural townships in the 1950s and 1960s. When itbecame clear her illness was terminal, she passed the work of completing thebook over to Heather, who has since this time worked closely with Isabel’sfamily to take up the story of Isabel’s later life and her search for understand-ing of her community’s history.

As it has taken shape, Isabel’s life story is told largely in her own words,but now incorporates insights from her family and close friends andcolleagues, many of whom were those who knew her best throughout herturbulent life. One of Isabel’s many strengths was her ability to form deep andproductive relationships with non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal people.The contributions to the book, as well as those segments about Isabel’s lateryears which have been authored by Heather, reflect those relationships withwhite Australians and others as well as Isabel’s complex and dynamic engage-ments within the Aboriginal community.

‘This is a wonderful book—moving, intelligent, and informative. It combinesthe genres of autobiography, oral history, and biography to tell the story of thelife of a clearly remarkable woman, Isabel Flick. It made me laugh, cry, andthink afresh.’

Professor Ann CurthoysAuthor of Freedom Ride

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page i

Page 2: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Heather Goodall is a Sydney-based historian and activist. She has worked incollaboration with Aboriginal people on many projects since 1972, when shefirst met Isabel Flick. In New South Wales and central Australia, Heather hasrecorded oral history and memories with Aboriginal people for many projects,such as the documentation of community sites, including the Collarenebricemetery; research in Land Rights and Native Title; the investigations intoBlack Deaths in Custody and research into women’s history and communityhistory. Her book, Invasion to Embassy: land in Aboriginal politics in New SouthWales, was awarded the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australian History in 1997.Heather teaches at the University of Technology, Sydney, where she is anAssociate Professor in Social Inquiry and a member of the Centre forTrans/forming Cultures, and is also continuing her research and writing inAboriginal history, environmental history and inter-cultural relations inAustralia. She lives with her husband, Paul Torzillo, and her two daughters,Emma and Judith, in Glebe.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page ii

Page 3: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The many lives of an extraordinary Aboriginal woman

Isabel Flick andHeather Goodall

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page iii

Page 4: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Published with the assistance of the Australian Academy of the Humanities

All photographs were found in Isabel’s collections of papers and albums, unless their source is otherwise stated.

First published in 2004Copyright © Isabel Flick and Heather Goodall 2004

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced ortransmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

including photocopying, recording or by any information storageand retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from thepublisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a

maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its

educational purposes provided that the educational institution (orbody that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to

Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin83 Alexander Street

Crows Nest NSW 2065Australia

Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218

Email: [email protected]: www.allenandunwin.com

National Library of AustraliaCataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Flick, Isabel.Isabel Flick: the many lives of an extraordinary Aboriginal woman

Includes index.ISBN 1 74114 123 0.

1. Flick, Isabel. 2 Aboriginal Australians – Women – Biography. I. Goodall, Heather. II. Title.


Set in 10/13 pt Goudy by Midland Typesetters, VictoriaPrinted by Ligare Pty Ltd, Sydney

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page iv

Page 5: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman


Foreword viiAcknowledgements ixIsabel’s Family xiIsabel’s Country xiiIntroduction: Making Trouble xiii

1 ‘Owning the World’: The Old Camp at Collarenebri, 1930s 12 Toomelah Mission: A Place of Learning, 1938–1942 233 Learning From the Street, 1940s 394 Building Pressures, 1950s 615 Confrontations, 1960s 886 Entangling the City with the Bush, 1972–1978 1207 Reinventing Isabel, 1977–1980 1468 Changing Collarenebri, 1980s 1629 Land Rights on the Ground, 1983–1993 186

10 Sisters, 1993 on 21411 A Wider Focus, 1995–2000 22712 The Dipping Place 249

Notes 257Index 263

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page v

Page 6: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

I dedicate this book to my six children: Ben, Larry, Brenda, Tony, Amyand Aubrey, who were denied full commitment from me as a mother as

I was always working, trying to provide just a little something extrafor them.—Isabel

My writing for this book was in memory of Isabel, but is dedicated tothe wider Flick family, to Isabel’s brothers and sisters and their families aswell as her own, those warm, brave and extraordinary people who have

changed the way we see the world.—Heather

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page vi

Page 7: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman


The art of story telling—and the value of personal narratives—is beautifullycaptured by this wonderful book about an amazing woman who lived throughtough times. The life of Isabel Flick is the story of an Australian hero. A herowho fought injustice with her every breath, every minute of her life. IsabelFlick did not just take up the battles of her own people; she took up thebattles of decency and fairness for all.

Isabel’s story is also a reflection of the treatment, policies and lifeexperiences of the indigenous people in north-western New South Wales. Itcaptures experiences of shocking racism, injustice and incredible pain, andalso the important bond of family and community. It shows Isabel’s wonder-ful humour, her love of life and her great humility, all mixed with an iron will.The collaborative effort of Heather Goodall and the Flick family in puttingthis book together strengthens our collective narrative.

There is one story that, for me, captures Isabel Flick the person. Oneof her dreams was to get a tarred road from the township of Collarenebrito the Aboriginal cemetery, which is located on private property about sixkilometres out of town. For over twenty years the dream was passionatelypursued. In November 2002, the road was finally completed, eighteenmonths after Izzie’s death.

I attended the opening of Bell’s Way. There were people, both Abori-ginal and non-Aboriginal, from all over. The northwest towns wererepresented by the elders and senior people from those communities, and theFlick family were dignified and present in great force.

What that road symbolises is a tribute to the life of Isabel Flick. Bell’sWay and the battle to have it constructed is a very important stitching in of


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page vii

Page 8: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

an additional beautiful piece of fabric to the mosaic of our Australian story.I am forever grateful to Isabel Flick and I know her spirit flew high that day—every speaker invoked her memory.

Aunty Izzie rests in that cemetery in the knowledge that her manyvisitors these days will be able to come no matter how much rain falls. Thecoloured glass that defines the family graves sparkle just that little bit more.

It is a great honour to provide a very inadequate foreword to pay tributeto a true battler—and a giant in the collective memory of the thousands ofpeople touched by Isabel Flick. She truly did touch many lives, had manyof her own and was an extraordinary Aboriginal woman.

Linda BurneyMP, Member for Canterbury

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page viii

Page 9: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman



There are many people whom Isabel would have liked to have thanked forsupporting her throughout her life and in the process of making this bookhappen. I can record at least some of them here.

First there are Isabel’s family. Her eldest son, Ben, became tragically illand passed away just before Isabel’s own final illness, but his interest in herwide political experiences was an important spur to her decision to begin thebook. Her surviving children, Larry, Brenda, Tony, Amy and Aubrey, haveall contributed in different ways. They talked over the themes, encouragedher to find the time to do the recordings, suggested what might go in andwhat should come out, found photos and papers, laughed and cried overdrafts and encouraged me in the final writing. Isabel’s partner, Ted Thorne,patiently listened to and talked over every word of the draft. Isabel’s brothersand sisters have all been encouraging, and Joe and Rose particularly havebeen central in researching and in contributing memories. Isabel’s sisters-in-law, Isobelle Flick, Rosie Flick and Doreen Hynch, were each generous withtheir contributing stories and deeply involved with Isabel’s research into herfamily and Collarenebri’s history. Isabel’s nieces, Barbara and Karen, and hernephew, Joey, have been tireless in offering words, images and memories.There has been a wider circle of friends, from Collarenebri, Toomelah,Gunnedah and many other towns of the region, who supported Isabel as shegathered the threads of her life together. Finally, Isabel could not have begunand I could not have continued with the work of this book without Isabel’sclose friends, Kevin Cook and Judy Chester, who supported Isabel and mewith encouragement, careful reading of drafts and sustained confidence overmany years.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page ix

Page 10: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The research for the book involved country travel, photography andaudio recording, and this was resourced by a generous grant from the Unionof Australian Women, an enduring and important organising body of womenwho wanted to support an Aboriginal woman to tell her story. The Rona-Tranby Foundation assisted the UAW to administer the funds and togetherthey allowed Isabel to accomplish research for this project which otherwisewould not have been possible.

Isabel’s family wish to thank Ted Fernando of the Collarenebri LocalLand Council, for assisting to fulfil Isabel’s dream of sealing the cemeteryroad.

Many people were consulted in the research for this book and those withclose links to Collarenebri who were most generous in their assistance wereHarry Denyer, Dawn Stallworthy and Archie Kalokerinos. Nadia Wheatleyshowed me ways to make the collaborative writing approach work well andher confidence in the project helped to keep it going. Peter Thompson, JudyTorzillo, Paul Torzillo, Meredith Burgmann and Brian Doolan have all readsections of drafts and offered perspectives, comments and memories. I amgrateful to the readers of the manuscript, Ann Curthoys and Bain Attwood,whose valuable responses and suggestions have strengthened the work.

Elizabeth Weiss of Allen & Unwin has been a clear-sighted and encour-aging publisher and we have been fortunate in having the valuable editorialjudgement of Colette Vella and Belinda Lee. This book would not have beencreated, however, without John Iremonger, whose persistent encouragementnurtured a chaotic dream towards reality. John’s insight, generosity andwarmth continue to be deeply missed.

And because all writing grabs every spare minute and every last shred ofconcentration, I want to thank my daughters, Judith and Emma, and myhusband, Paul, for their extraordinary patience, love and warm encourage-ment.

Heather GoodallJanuary 2004

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page x

Page 11: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xi

Page 12: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xii

Page 13: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Introduction: Making Trouble

‘And I said that to this old fella at the ticket box: ‘‘I want you to comeand fix this. Take these ropes off! What do you think we are? Our moneyis as good as anyone else’s and we want to sit where we want to sit’’. I keptstanding there in front of the ticket office, and by then my sister-in-lawwas there too. The two of us, making trouble! And my poor little heart, Idon’t know how it stayed in my chest, but it did. Even though I said it ascalmly as I could, I was so sick within myself. I heard my own mob saying:‘‘Oh God, she’s making us shame!’’ But they were afraid of the confronta-tion too. And then someone said: ‘‘Good on you Isabel. It’s about timethat happened’’. And then old Mark Cutler could see I was just going tostand there and keep standing there. Sometimes I think if he’d waited justa little bit longer I’d have gone away. But then he said: ‘‘Oh, all right, youcan sit anywhere then!’’ And that’s what happened.’ Isabel

When Isabel Flick stood her ground under the big ‘Liberty Picture Show’ signin Collarenebri in 1961, she was challenging more than a single businessmanin a small dusty town in western New South Wales. She didn’t just want anend to the colour bar which saw Aborigines roped off in a narrow space underthe screen. She was confronting a century-and-a-half of discrimination andsegregation.

Picture shows were only the most recent places to rope off and shut outAborigines from the daily life of country towns. Long before the pictureshows, there had been the shops and the pubs, the streets and the schools, allclosed to Aborigines on racial lines no matter how hard they had demandedtheir rights of access to public places as citizens. The petty humiliation of


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xiii

Page 14: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

being forced to sit, roped off, right under the screen every Friday was only theeasy end of this system. The daily police patrols, policemen pushing their wayinto houses, welfare officers hauling kids away and constant arrests for beinguptown after dark, were each more frightening and even harder to stand upto. But they all made up part of the same thing.

This was the system which had choked down rural Australia, robbing itof talent, breeding fear and suspicion, dividing towns on colour lines anddestroying lives. This was the fossilised structure that the 1965 Freedom Ridewas to bring to national attention. But the reason the Freedom Riders’ buswent to the towns that it did was that the fires of change had already beenlit. Courageous people like Isabel Flick had begun standing up and ‘makingtrouble’, forcing the ropes to come down and the doors to be opened, one byone, town by town. Their sparks were a beacon to the student activists as theyplanned the trip. The Freedom Ride stirred the conscience of the nation bymaking these local fires visible. The people who broke the system on theground, who were there before the Freedom Riders came and who remainedafter the bus drove out of town, these were the people who actually changedthe way rural society worked.

‘Troublemaker’ was the insult that was frequently hurled at Isabel andpeople like her who gathered their courage to stand up to the restrictions oftheir towns. When they challenged the injustice of discrimination, whenthey refused to accept it, when they pointed out its waste and what was oftenjust plain silliness, they were trying to change the way things had ‘alwaysbeen done’. That was a trouble to the people who had used the status quo tobenefit themselves. But making trouble turned out to be the only way thatthis system could be dismantled. Isabel was one of the troublemakers, thoseordinary people whose courage and persistence challenged petty and majorracism and made the bush a better place for everyone to live.

Isabel was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1986, washonoured by her communities and by Tranby Aboriginal Co-operativeCollege in 1993 and at her death, in 2000, her family received condolencesfrom the Premier of New South Wales and the Deputy Prime Minister ofAustralia. She became a leader not only of the Aboriginal community, but aspokesperson for the whole town on vital issues such as environmental protec-tion. In her mature years she was a powerful speaker, who could express herideas lucidly and inspirationally, or convey a damning picture of an opponentwith a subtle gesture, a shift in intonation and a dash of wicked humour.

Yet Isabel had not been born to be a leader and a spokesperson. She grewup on riverbanks and in camps. She was denied any education in a schoolingsystem which pretended to be public but was in fact racially segregated.Isabel’s first hesitant steps in politics didn’t occur till she was in her thirties.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xiv

Page 15: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Confrontations like the one at the Liberty Picture Show made her ill withtension and she suffered periods of deep depression as she battled doubts andfamily crises. To reach her mature assurance, or even to stand her groundoutside the Liberty, meant a long journey for Isabel. She steered herself fromher shy childhood to her first embarrassed steps onto the political stage,through to the confidence with which she could speak to Federal politiciansand mediate in acrimonious meetings between local government andcontractors so she could get her community’s building projects underway.

The unfolding of her life from a hesitant child into a mature and confi-dent activist is one of the stories in this book. Isabel was always puzzled abouthow she had taken the first steps along this path. She returned to that questionover and over in her recordings. She had decided to tell her life story withencouragement from her old friend Kevin Cook of Tranby College and withfunding from the Union of Australian Women and the Rona-Tranby Foun-dation. She asked me, as a historian who was an old friend as well, to help withrecording her memories and finding the contextual material she might need.We all thought she would tell a story about her later achievements but insteadshe wanted to pursue her own recurring question: Why did my life take theroad it did? Why did I stop drawing back from conflict and begin to stand upand challenge the things I saw around me that were wrong? This cluster ofquestions led her persistently back to her childhood and to Collarenebri, eventhough the actions of her later life were played out on a far wider stage.

So the other story in this book is about the town of Collarenebri on thewestern bank of the Barwon River. In many ways, Collarenebri is on aborder. Not only is it close to the border between New South Wales andQueensland, which played such a major role in Isabel’s life. And not onlynear the border of the Gamilaraay and Yuwalaraay language groups amongMurris,1 or on the border between the pastoral land to the west and thecropping lands to the east. But this town, being smaller than its neighboursof Moree or Walgett, allows us a better glimpse of the border between blackand white in rural Australia. In some ways that border is very harsh and thegulf between the two communities unbridgeable. Collarenebri still seemedlike a frontier town when I first went there in 1975, with no sign of commu-nication between Aborigines and whites. A palpable tension hovered in themain street. The intensity of hostility which saw white men running theFreedom Riders’ bus off the road just a few miles to the west of Collarenebri,had been poisoning those western river towns for decades. It was no surpriseto Isabel and her family when it erupted in the ugly conflicts in Walgett andMoree in 1965.

But what Isabel’s story shows is that such polarisation is only part of thestory. The colour lines were actually—sometimes—elastic and flexible. They

Introduction: Making Trouble


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xv

Page 16: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

could be stretched and lifted, even if they often did snap back into rigid tensionunder some sorts of pressure. The Freedom Ride recordings of the street abusetraded in 1965 show very clearly the exploitative sexual contact between whitesand blacks of these towns. But Isabel’s story opens up many different types ofrelationship: from casual courtesy to casual cruelty; from thoughtlessness whichwounded children for life through to respect and affection, shared in both direc-tions. Relationships in the everyday politics of the town ranged from cautious,temporary alliances to distant respect through, just sometimes, to staunch,warm comradeships that endured over many decades. One of Isabel’s extra-ordinary skills was her ability to keep talking to all sides, within and across thecolour lines. Her frank and thoughtful memories about the white residents ofCollarenebri, as well as of the Murris, open up a new way to see into the compli-cated relationships which underlie bush Australia to this day.

And her portrait of the town itself is important in suggesting thepowerful hold which places and communities have over the people whoinhabit them. Collarenebri was a hard town embedded with problems ofeconomy and environment which pressured all of the relationships there tobreaking point much of the time. It was a town from which people, black andwhite, escaped and vowed never to return. And yet they often came back,even though they might leave again and return once more. The security ofcommunity closeness vied with the suffocating grip of repression, poverty andisolation to keep many people in a state where Collarenebri always had aclaim on their thoughts if not their hearts.

Isabel had known me a long time before she decided I could help herwith her book. She had advised me in my earlier work in researching thehistory of Aboriginal people and their relations to land across New SouthWales. She had also called me in to work on the documentation of theAboriginal cemetery in Collarenebri, which involved recording people’smemories about the burials and family histories, as well as searching thearchives. For her book, she asked me to record her as she retold her memoriesand to research the historical context she needed to give her story its back-ground. We began this work with the recording sessions, taping hours ofIsabel’s reflections on her early life, as well as fragments on some of the laterissues I asked her to talk about. We went to Collarenebri a few times, and hadreally just plunged into this exciting process of visiting places and peoplewhen Isabel was suddenly diagnosed with inoperable cancer. She knew shewas not going to finish the book herself. Before she died Isabel handed thatjob over to me and her family, passing on to us the job of making her booktell the stories she had wanted to tell.

This book was always going to have many voices in it. Isabel had lovedtalking over her memories with the family and friends she had grown up and

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xvi

Page 17: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

lived with all her life—all of them checking, discussing and comparing theirversions of the events they had shared. But her sudden death meant that hervoice had been interrupted far earlier than it should have been. There weregaps in her recorded memories; on deeply important issues, perhaps thosesilences were deliberate. But there were other events which Isabel hadn’tcovered yet simply because they weren’t the priority areas for her at the time.And anyway, as she told me dismissively, she expected me to check up thedetails.

On her death, her family gathered her papers as she had asked, andpassed them to me to look after while I worked on the book. In the end herfamily will decide where they go. Another of the ways in which Isabel wasextraordinary was in the care she took to keep her papers and letters together,even though she had moved around so much over the years. Many Aborigi-nal families in the west have treasured their family keepsakes—photos, cards,children’s reports and trophies, baby images and toys—and kept them safeagainst the odds in lives full of movement but with few other possessions.Isabel was not too different, but her collection had, alongside all those things,the minutes of meetings in her own hand, eviction notices, notes forspeeches, drafts of letters she had written to politicians and public servants,cards from funerals, meetings, diaries and the re-read, deeply worn letters toher from those she loved, as well as some of her own many letters to otherswhich had found their way back to her. Some were handled so much theywere held together with sticky tape. Others had been torn to pieces and thencarefully gathered together and placed in envelopes to be saved. Together, allthese photos and minutes and toys and letters form pieces in the jigsaw of awoman’s activist life.

So Isabel’s family and I looked over these things after her death andbegan to talk about how we could put them together in a way which woulddo justice to her ideas about what her book could be. Although her paperswere a rich archive of Isabel’s later life, a strong balance to the recordingsabout her early life, what was still missing was something of the dynamism ofIsabel’s relationships, her mercurial humour and the energy of her presence.In the end, we needed to hear from other people about how Isabel had beenin their lives, some perspectives outside Isabel’s, from blacks and whites, tounderstand some of the many layers of her life.

The book has taken its shape from these discussions. The early chapters,one to five, have Isabel as the principal author. I have drawn on the record-ings she made for the book, but also on some interviews from the 1980s withmyself and with other people, and on tapes recorded at formal speeches or atinformal, but highly charged, occasions like the Western Women’s Councilmeeting at Winbar in 1985. The transcripts from these recordings have been

Introduction: Making Trouble


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xvii

Page 18: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

lightly edited, but then reordered to make up a chronological account ofIsabel’s early life, from the early 1930s until she left Collarenebri in 1972.There were not many differences in the ways in which Isabel told stories aboutthe same events, but there were some where her views changed over time orin different circumstances of retelling, and I’ve drawn attention to those differ-ences. The context Isabel wanted me to provide is there in these chapters inthe form of italicised sections which offer background to the stories she istelling. There are also, importantly, the voices of the other people whomIsabel called on to tell about key events, particularly the school segregationissues in Collarenebri and the Liberty Picture Show confrontation. Theirwords are indicated by a single vertical line. Her sisters-in-law Rosie Flick andDoreen Hynch, her sister Rose Fernando and her niece Barbara are importantstory tellers in this part of the book.

In the second part, chapters 6 to 10, which cover the years from 1972 untilher death in 2000, we have far fewer of Isabel’s recordings. These chapters arewritten by me as the principal author, with Isabel’s voice heard whereverpossible. The chapters are based on Isabel’s papers, on her general conversa-tions with me over the years and on the research I have done into this periodof her life. But they also draw very importantly on the memories of people whoknew and worked closely with Isabel. In this section, it is Isabel’s words as wellas those of others that are indicated by the vertical line. Her sister Rose, herbrother Joe, her son Tony and her close friend Paul Torzillo have all contributedtheir reflections, as I have, on the complex person who was Isabel Flick.

In writing and editing this book, it has been important for me that itremains Isabel’s book, with an autobiography at its core which explores thequestions she wanted to ask about her life. In many ways the book is the storyof all of us who have contributed, because Isabel shaped so much of each of ourlives in dramatic and unmistakable ways. But, ultimately, this is Isabel’s story,the story of a strongly unique individual who was always deeply embeddedwithin her family and community, even when she felt most isolated and alone.She reached out to people across the lines of colour, class and education,speaking their own language fluently to each of them, whether it was thelanguage of the riverbank or of the courtroom, building a network of peoplelinked by the extraordinary experience of her friendship. Her commitment toher community never wavered, but she had the honesty and courage to chal-lenge her own mob as much as she challenged those who oppressed them.

Her own most frequent reflection on her life was: ‘Oh, yes, but I’ve hadmany lives . . .’

Heather GoodallJanuary 2004

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page xviii

Page 19: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

1‘Owning the World’: The Old Camp atCollarenebri, 1930s

I was born in Goondiwindi in 1928, near where my mother Celia came from.But my story really begins with my Dad, Mick Flick, and his people. He wasborn sometime in the 1890s at Miambla, just up the Moree road fromCollarenebri. He was a Gamilaraay man and that tribe is a very big one, fromup in Queensland down to the Barwon River around our way in Collarenebri.Between Goodabluie and Mogil Mogil stations and Collarenebri was whereDad’s people came from and they wandered from one place to another aroundthere. But Dad’s mother Ann died when he was about nine. She’s buried inthe traditional way in a tree at Moonlight Point, north of Collarenebri, andDad showed my brothers Joe and Lindsay that tree when they were workingup that way in later years.

When Dad’s mother died, he and his sister Ann were looked after bytheir relations around Collarenebri, by the Croaker family and particularlyby Granny Fanny Combo, who used to be a Mundy. Granny Fanny adoptedDad and reared him up. His sister Ann stayed at Collarenebri, but as Dad gota bit older he went out to work on some property. A few boys his age wentthrough The Rules1 sometime then, but Dad didn’t, and I think maybe he wastrying to keep out of the way so he wouldn’t have to go through it.

Then when the First World War came in 1914, Dad was working for aChinaman, and he decided he would run away to join up. He and Harry Mason,a mate of his who had gone through The Rules, headed off at night. Theywalked from Pokataroo to Narrabri in three nights, and that was where this bigconscription buggy was going around. They were too young to join up then,


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 1

Page 20: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

maybe 15 or so, but they put their ages up. And because they were Aboriginal,there was no birth certificate to cover them and so they were accepted into thearmy. And from there they just had six weeks’ training and they went overseasto the Western Front. They weren’t the only Murris who enlisted. There werefour or five Aboriginal servicemen from Collarenebri alone in the FirstWorld War.

Dad fought in the Somme Valley, and was wounded more than once. Hewas hit by a bullet in the stomach, but went back to the front to help in theAmbulance Corps. But then he was wounded again and sent to England tohospital there. And then he was sent back to France and before you know ithe was in the firing line again. When we looked up his records (number4292), it turned out he was in the Lighthorse, he was trained as a machinegunner, and he also served with the Ambulance Corps. And he volunteeredto stay over there! But he never talked much about it when we were kids, sowe never found all this out till later on! But the thing he used to say, whenhe did talk about the war, was to say: ‘Only the poor man suffered, where therich man never suffered . . . only the poor men suffer’.

Now when he came back, he was working up over the border in Queens-land, and that’s where he ran into Mum’s mob, the Clevens family. Mum wasabout 16 at the time, around about 1920. The Clevens were from Bungunyah,

Isabel Flick


Mick Flick, Isabel’s father, a hand-coloured photograph takenaround the 1940s.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 2

Page 21: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

not too far from Toomelah, but on the northern side of the river. Theirlanguage was Bigambul, close to Gamilaraay, and when I was little some ofthe family lived on the Yarrawanna Creek at Welltown station. I’ve only justgot fleeting memories of them there, but I remember being with my mother,Celia, and some of her brothers and sisters there. And I remember my great-grandmother, Granny Susan—she was the Queen of Welltown station—which was a big stud station. Apparently the boss of the Welltown station usedto say to her every year: ‘You take your people in there and you get whateverthey want. Now, whatever you want to get for them, you get anything youwant. You just go into the shop’.

So she goes in to the station store. I remember I was there, and I musthave been only four or five and we were going along in this old sulky and adray. Granny Susan was the focus, everyone was making sure Granny Susanwas all right. That day everybody was so happy. My uncle was working onanother station and he’d come in specially. And when we got there, the onlything she wanted was two plugs of tobacco!

And the shopkeeper is saying: ‘Now do you want to buy anything for thekids? Do you want to buy . . .?’

And everybody is saying: ‘Do you want to get a pair of slippers or . . .?’Trying to get her to buy something.

‘Owning the World’


Celia Flick (née Clevens) takenaround the 1940s.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 3

Page 22: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And she said: ‘No’. That’s all she wanted. She couldn’t speak English, butshe knew how to say ‘biaka’. And that’s all she wanted was two plugs of‘biaka’.

And I remember everyone going back out to the sulky and the old dray.And we had a great laugh afterwards, you know. My uncle bought a big bag oflollies for us kids, ’cause he thought the kids would be disappointed. Buteveryone else was saying: ‘Look here, I was planning on getting this’. And ‘I wasplanning . . .’ Everybody was planning on getting something, because the bosshad come out and told them what was happening: ‘Go in with her and tell her. . . tell the shopkeeper what you want’. But she had the okay, you see. And Ithought what a wonderful thing to happen to us, and especially the way thepeople handled it, you know. Because they went home laughing like hell!

It had been from the Yarrawanna that they took a lot of Mum’s people.There was a problem where there was a fight, and a terrible accident wheremy mother’s father was shot dead by one of his sons, my uncle Billy. Then thecops came in and they used that as an excuse to be able to send them awayand apprentice them out. Most of Mum’s family were sent to Cherbourg,2 andMum married Dad then and that’s how Mum escaped the send-away part. Butthat’s where her life was just completely broken with their family, I think.

Alma, one of my aunties, told me not long ago that after she got sent toCherbourg, she got sent away to work and ended up spending most of her life

Isabel Flick


Celia’s relations: Bigambul men, working on Welltown Station c. 1910, dressed ready forceremonies. Isabel had cut out and enlarged the photo of the fourth man from the left. Shethen circled and highlighted him in her album, indicating he was her direct relation.(AIATSIS N3591.2 Photo reproduced with permission of AIATSIS.)

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 4

Page 23: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

on Palm Island which was the penal settlement. She used to try and get backto Bungunya. Sometimes she’d dress up as a bloke and nearly get away withit, until she got to Goondiwindi and then she’d be questioned about whereshe come from: ‘Never see you around . . . So, where did you come from?’So ‘bang’, she goes back to Palm Island again. And she’d dye her hair andstuff . . . you know, do anything. She got away with two or three differentdisguises and things like that, and then she’d go back to Palm Island. WhenI said to her: ‘Oh, what was Cherbourg really like?’ she said: ‘Well, I don’tknow, Bell, because I spent most of my time on Palm Island’. But that’s allAunty wanted to do really—was to be back with her people.

Dad and Mum moved back over the border, towards where Dad’s peoplewere. While he had been away, his people had finally moved to Collarenebrifrom Mogil Mogil station, to where our tribal cemetery is now on that lagoon.

Mostly, although we were around Collarenebri, I just remember that wekept moving all the time. I think this was Dad’s idea of keeping us away fromthe system. It wasn’t just in Queensland, because in New South Wales thewelfare was starting to come in then and pick up kids and shift blokes fromone place to another and . . . interfering with our lives.3 So as I see it now,everywhere he worked as a shearer or fencer or whatever, we were camped inthe scrub close by. I think one of the reasons why we was always on the movewas because of the fear of us kids being taken. And we moved like that untilDad felt that all the re-settlement things were over. I remember coming tothe camps in Colle then after that.

Now when we moved in, about 1934, the Murris were living on what Icall the ‘Old Camp’, but the lagoon camp had been an even earlier one. Thisis a particular piece of land, 160 acres around the lagoon, that was set asidein 1899 for the use for Aboriginal people. I can imagine, first of all, Aborigi-nals roaming in their own style and for their own reasons. And then all of asudden, authorities started to herd them into different areas. We freely wentfrom one place to another up to around the turn of the century, but I thinkour people were pushed into different situations and different areas by . . .station owners, I suppose, settlers, and maybe government officials. So thelagoon land got reserved.

Granny Fanny Combo had actually lived out here at the lagoon. A lot ofAboriginals lived there and she was the main person in the community. Iremember being told that she used to walk three or four miles from the lagooncamp to town, do a day’s work for food and then bring the food right back—she’d walk in and walk out.

When I was about nine, I remember Granny Fanny going up pretty oftenfrom where we were camped to work up at the cemetery near the lagoon. Sheused to be telling me about the really old cemetery that’s further away still,

‘Owning the World’


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 5

Page 24: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

a mile or two beyond the lagoon. But we grew up associating the really oldcemetery with this one near the lagoon. And as I grew older I started torealise just how important this lagoon site was, because Granny Fanny hadbeen a young girl herself there. And Fanny Combo was one of the oldestpeople I grew up knowing. She died in the forties, I’d say, in the late forties.And she was well over the hundreds then. No one could really say exactlyhow old. My father was a part of that family, because you don’t really have tobe born into the family to belong to it. In our particular group of Aboriginalpeople here, my Dad became a part of this scene after his mother died. Andso I in turn became a part of it.

That lagoon reserve was revoked in 1924. Some kind of epidemic brokeout because the only water they had there was lagoon water. There was threehuts there, so I think the authorities, the police and perhaps landownersaround, burnt those places down and shifted the blacks in about a mile or twocloser to town. The people were displaced once again to a police paddockthat we call the ‘Old Camp’.

And that’s where I remember we came to settle down about 1934. Dadbuilt a camp there but still when he went to work he always took us with him,until after Angledool and those missions were all broken up and separated, in1936. I think he felt the security then, ‘All right, that part is over’—it’s justlike saying, ‘The war’s over, we can settle down now’. And that’s how he sortof settled into our camp and we could say we were going to camp there formonths and months.

There wasn’t many people living at the Old Camp on the river at that time.It was like other people was just settling too. I don’t know whether they’dbeen like we were, always camped in the scrub. But there was only about sixor seven families when we came in 1934, each family camped in clusters closetogether, you know? Then each of the family camps were spread along a highbank of the river, a long way back from the water. A path came from each endof the camp down the steep bank to a big grassy flat about 200 metres widethen down to the edge of the river.

There was always a difference between the top end of the camp and thebottom end and the middle of the camp. But there was no feeling of factionsI can remember then. The Thornes were in the top camp, where the roadcame in, furthest from town. That was Ida and Colin Thorne’s place, and theyhad a big camp there. Ida was a Murphy before she was married, and their kidswere Ted and Roy, Linda and Jessie, Margie, Dulcie and all that mob. Then usFlicks in the middle, then the Combos and the Mundys. The Mundys havealways been there as far as I can remember. And Granny Fanny was there withthem. And that was the three main families.4 And up at the top end as well

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 6

Page 25: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

This illustration is based on a sketch that was hand drawn by Isabel and other members ofthe Old Camp community when Isabel began work on her story in 1998.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 7

Page 26: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel Flick


Colin Thorne’s camp, Old Camp, Collarenebri, 13 March 1930. The boys standing underthe bough shade are probably Roy and Ted Thorne. (Photograph by D.H. Way,Department of Health, State Records 12/5572.1, Special Bundles 1911–1939.Reproduced from the original photograph with permission from SRNSW.)

Granny Fanny Combo’s camp at the Old Camp, Collarenebri, 13 March 1930. These largehouses were constructed with timber frames and walls and the roofing from kerosene tins.Water was boiled in the tins to burst the seams, after which they were beaten flat. Boughshades were built and replenished as required for outdoor shaded living areas. (Photograph byD.H. Way, Department of Health, State Records 12/5572.1, Special Bundles 1911–1939.Reproduced from the original photograph with permission from State Records Authorityof NSW.)

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 8

Page 27: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

was two old fellas who used to live on their own, they had their own one-bedroom little camps up there—Hector Murphy and old Billy Hardy.5

Their houses were made in the same way, but everyone could do it a bitdifferent from the others. They’d build a bush timber frame and put flattenedtins over it. The tins were kerosine tins or some square tins. You’d fill themwith water and put them on the fire. As they boiled, the seams would burstand then you could hammer them out flat. The roofs were tin and somehouses had breezeways, the windows were small and the rooms were darkinside. The floors were dirt, but they were swept so much they were smoothand hard. Outside was swept too. And people usually built a bough shade upagainst the side of the house and we used to live out there a lot of the time—in summer ’specially.

We were what you’d call a middle-camp mob, close to but not right onthe fence. There was only two camps there, ours and Old Maudy Thunder-bolt, an old woman who had three little camps: one for the boys and one forher and one for her brother. The Thunderbolts were part of the Murray group.And then later on people like the Weatheralls came in from Angledool.6 Andthen the main Murray group from Bre came in, Old George Murray and hisfamily (during the 1940s). But they came when those missions broke up. Soit was only a little camp when I was a kid there.

Dad always encouraged us to be involved with the three main groups in theOld Camp—the top end, the middle camp and the bottom camp. He’d say tous: ‘Now don’t just go to the one mob all the time. You’ve got to go to the othermob too’. And if he’d be going in to town from our bush camp, he’d drop us offat the bottom end, and then the next time he’d go in to town he’d drop usoff at the top camp, and we very seldom strayed away from there, unless thosekids came with us down to the bottom camp. And then I noticed if he’d got aporcupine7 or something and brought it in, he’d try to share it around. If he’dgot two he’d be right, he’d be able to share it with the whole lot—bring a littlebit for this group and a little bit for the other. So he was very careful . . . Isuppose he must’ve seen the faction before I saw it, but I can’t remember thembeing factions then.

I remember Granny Fanny Combo so clearly. She was very old then, shewas over 100 when I was about 15 or 16. She always used to wear those biglong dresses. Granny Fanny got an award from the Red Cross for her involve-ment with them: she used to do a lot of stuff for them. Even though she wasn’tone to tell us much about a thing like that.

And Nanna Pearly Mason was a midwife who used to help with all thebirths out at Angledool before her family moved to Collarenebri.8 She toldme that she was nine the first time she had to help her sister because thematron wasn’t there at Angledool. And I said: ‘Oh Nanna!’ And she said:

‘Owning the World’


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 9

Page 28: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

‘Oh, I was nearly cryin!’ But I couldn’t be because my sister was in charge ofthe whole operation and that was that!’

And Aunty Bea was another one I remember so well . . .

The stories Isabel knew about people at the Old Camp reflect the relationshipsamong the people there, so they are collective stories, rather than individual ones.Many of the details they remembered were talked over and compared when Isabeland her relations and friends were visiting the places where they had lived, as theydid during 1998 and 1999. Isabel was often with her sisters-in-law, DoreenWeatherall Hynch and Rosie Weatherall Flick, and her younger sisters, Clara FlickMason and Rose Flick Fernando. On one of these trips out to the Old Camp,Aunty Bessie Khan [Aunty Bea], by then very elderly and frail, was able to cometoo, and this is how some of the conversation went:

Doreen: Aunty Bea used to wear a lot of jewellery.

Isabel: . . . and she used to wear these big high heeled shoes, eh AuntyBea? [Laughs] She used to wear those big stilts, stilletos, big stilts there . . .

Bea: . . . [laughs and giggles]

Isabel: I’ll just tell you a bit about Aunty Bea. Aunty Bea was always avery stylish lady, and she used to wear lovely long dresses with flaredskirts and she always had shoes to match, handbags to match. Yeah, sheused to wear the makeup and all, eh Aunt? . . . and all the scarves . . .Everybody used to say: ‘Oh, don’t know how she walks in them shoes’.No worries. Aunty Bea used to walk along with ’em . . . I’d swear they’dbe that high . . .

Doreen: Five inches?

Isabel: Oh, she was a real stylish lady. I can tell you that.

Rose Fernando: What’s the name of that horse you used to ride?

Bea: It was Creamy . . .

Isabel: I never heard about that. ‘Creamy’.

Rose Fernando: Yeah, that’s it, Aunty Bea. And you used to ride in fromout there, eh, to go into the movies . . .

Bea: Oh yeah . . .

My first memories of becoming settled, I guess I was six or seven years old. Dadbuilt a tin hut out of scrap iron; that was how I came to discover our ‘wonder

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 10

Page 29: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

world’, the rubbish tip. All along on the other side of where the road is now, thatwas the tip for the town. The other kids who lived at the Old Camp alreadyknew about this special place before we came. Oh, we used to love that!

Old Aunty Maude used to say to us: ‘You want to ask your mother now,this afternoon I’m going out to the rubbish tip’. Oh, away we’d go. Everybodywould take off home and everybody would get their shoes, or whatever theyhad. I never ever had shoes. I had a hat though. And we used to jump aroundthere waiting for her. And we’re hop-scotching and everything waiting forher to be ready to go. Because that was just like we were going to a big circusor something. And as soon as she started moving off, we’d all start moving.And we’d bring back all this stuff for a cubby house . . . dragging it back.‘What did you bring this back for?’ ‘That’s for my cubby house.’ ‘That’s for myroom.’ Everybody would have something from the tip. You wouldn’t thinkhow it meant so much to us. That was one of the real exercises that excitedus, I reckon, we all went together. One lot would be climbing into old motorcars and around . . . and . . . ‘I got this’. ‘Look, what I got!’

It was always a treat. Sometimes we’d find high heeled shoes, handbags,broken dolls. I remember we’d show off with our stuff. I used to imitate BessieKhan, she was Bessie Mundy then, because she always had nice clothes andshoes, lipstick and face powder.

We played a lot of outdoor games: cubbie house, hop scotch, hide andseek, prisoners’ base, sheep shed come home. Our parents played their owngames. Men played marbles, Mumbler Peg,9 cricket and rounders. Our life-style was pretty simple, we went fishing a lot.

And then there was Kenny Mundy and Granny Fanny, they used to getout there on Sundays, every Sunday, and they’d have a game of roundersgoing. It’s probably taken off baseball, because it was run similar . . . One weekit’d be the kids playing the grown-ups, then it might be married versus singles,and the next week it’d be the boys playing the girls, little girls right up to theoldest—and the oldest person had to bat, always had to bat, and they had tobat first. Those games mostly used to be held down at old Granny Fanny’splace. And we played rounders for hours, you know.

There was always that person in the society, you know, always someonethat motivated people to have dances and sing songs and sometimes just sitaround and have a yarn, you know? And I remember when we were kids, thiswas George Combo—he went overseas with Dad—and he was always the oneto organise the dances up at the camp. We used to have Black dances. Andhe’d just go around and tell everybody and then he’d come around beforethey started and they’d got the big fire going, and he’d come around and say:‘Oh come on, come down. Just come down for a while’ and he’d coax every-body that way.

‘Owning the World’


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 11

Page 30: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And I know that some people, like Ted Thorne’s old mother Ida, used tosay: ‘Well, I don’t dance but I’ll go down for a little while’. And there wereother people like that, that didn’t dance, but who’d go. And sometimes they’djust have someone playing the mouth organ, sometimes there’d be the wind-upgramophone. And sometimes they’d get someone to play the accordion. Therewas a family from Mungindi—the Troutmans—they were very musical, theyplayed the accordion and the guitar. And if we got them to come down it wasa real special time, so nearly everyone would turn up just to listen to them. Andthen there’d always be someone that got out and sang a song; somewhere alongthey’d say: ‘Come on so-and-so, you can sing to me’. And it wouldn’t take longand three or four of them would be singing a song in the break.

Then in summer, there’d be these water fights. It’d start off with someonejust walking past and if someone was just sitting around doing nothing, they’djust hit them with a bit of water. Then someone would do the payback thing,and then everybody would get splashed and everyone would get into it. It wasonly the ones that were sick or really old that would miss out. But I used tosee everyone drawn in to that. And it’s a wonder people didn’t get cranky, youknow, sometimes they’d be all done up, like at Christmas time. ’Cause it’despecially happen on Christmas Day.

But then, after a while everybody started to realise they’d have to changestraight after dinner, because they used to get done up really . . . Those werethe times Old Aunty Bea’d really get done up. She used to have a hat tomatch every dress she had. Shoes . . . bloody heels three or four inches high.And she always wore rouge and lipstick and she’d always be done up and shealways used to look nice.

And Dad used to say we weren’t allowed to wear it, and we used to say:‘But Aunty Bea has got that lipstick thing on again’. And he’d say: ‘Yeah,don’t let me see you wearing that’. And we’d say: ‘Why?’ ‘Oh well, you’re notsupposed to. If you were supposed to have red lips you’d be born with red lips.’

He’d go through all that. He really didn’t like it. And so we never ques-tioned him and I don’t think many of the other girls did. I can’t rememberany of the girls doing it until Rana. Rana started copying Aunty Bea and thenit was all right!

And on moonlit nights, we’d have great games, you know. But everyonewas home at a certain time. No question about it. The older ones could stay alittle bit longer. But Dad used to have three whistles for us. That was the onlytime we could go out, when he was in camp. You couldn’t go and have a gamewhen Dad wasn’t home and sometimes he’d be out working on the stations formonths. And Dad used to have one whistle for me, two whistles for Joe andthree for Lindsay. The first whistle would go and everbody would stop! All thegirls would be saying: ‘Come on, come on, that’ll be for the boys . . .’ And just

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 12

Page 31: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

at odd times he would want the boys to go home first, and sometimes hewanted to give me a little bit longer. And then all the girls would take mehome later on.

But these two old single fellas that used to live up at the top end, no oneever went near their camps. Until one night, some boys thought they weregoing to be smart and they were pelting on the place or running sticks alongthe tins of the camp. And they thought they got away with it, see, becausethe first time the old fellas let them go. A couple of times they did that untilat last Hector Murphy come out, and didn’t he go for these kids! And every-body knew they were in trouble. See, soon as he made it public, we knewthey were going to cop it. If they didn’t cop it from him they were going tocop it from their mothers. Now my brother, Joe, and Ted Thorne was in thatthis one night that it happened. I can remember I was being questioned byMum about it. And I said: ‘Oh I don’t know. I don’t know’. I didn’t knowwhether to put Joe in or not, because he’d stand on me. And another one ofthe other kids walked up and they said: ‘Yeah, you know, you was therebecause of such and such . . .’ Bang! Didn’t I get a whack! Mum was the realhiding person. Dad never hit us. But it had to happen. And then they tookJoe straight back up to Hector and said: ‘There he is. You do what you haveto do’. He gave him a biff under the ears and said: ‘Don’t you come back hereno more’.

I enjoyed wash days at the river. On Mondays was when all the womenwent to the river to wash, swim, fish, cook and I guess enjoy their kids. Wesometimes went at sunrise and came home at sundown. Everyone used tohelp each other carry things like pots and pans, billy cans, mugs, plates andbags to sit on. I remember lots of women and children helping to carry thewood and water, then make the fires. These tasks all seemed to be fun . . . Twoor three different lots would be making the fire and set their boilers up so theycan boil the clothes.

The river always seemed to be clear and the beach was really sandy andclean, you could see the bottom then. It was lovely. One section in this areaof about 100 yards was rocks, where us kids swam. Our mothers or aunts orsomeone would teach us to swim. The kids’ part was right up where the rockswere, where it’s shallow. That’s where a lot of us learnt to swim. They’d takeus out and give us a push back towards that shallow part, and we all learntpretty soon, you know. Except Mum. She never learnt, she was in a differenttime really. But all of us, we had to learn. They’d say ‘Come on. Get in here’,you know, so we were more or less ordered to do it. This was always a veryspecial place. You could swim right along some parts of the bank, or fish,whatever you wanted to do. And the grown-ups never interfered with thekids’ part of the ‘swimming pool’ as they called it.


‘Owning the World’

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 13

Page 32: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But on one side of the rocks was what we called the ‘dipping place’. Thisplace was not to be just for anything, it was only for taking the water uphome, for our cooking and drinking. You couldn’t do nothing else there. Wewere not to swim there. In trouble if we dared. Oh, you wouldn’t dare swimaround where the dipping place was. Not even fish there. A bit past there waswhere we fish—and if someone was fishing there, then don’t make a noise.

We used to play skids across the river there: we’d get mussel shells andlittle stones and we used to just skid them across the river. Sometimes you’dget them right across there, you know. But one of the things was, the riverwas so clear. You could nearly see right across. There was reeds all along theedges in some places, except round where we dipped a lot for drinking water.There was never any there because we used to just rake it away.

We were all encouraged to have a go at catching a fish, bait a hook withworms or shrimps. One part of fishing none of us really liked however: if wecaught a fish we had to learn how to gut and clean it, that was one part wedidn’t quite take to. However to ‘big-note’ ourselves and cook our catch wassomething else. That was the first time I big-noted myself. I don’t know if Iembarrassed my mum or not, because I remember she kept saying, ‘All right,anyone can catch a fish. Pull your dress down. Sit down and eat your fish!’

We were living in the middle camp there, camped right near the fence.And I remember my dad made a little cart—just had two wheels and a 44-gallon drum. And my brothers had to make sure that they took that downto the river and filled it and brought it back. And that would happen nearlyevery Saturday morning. I never realised what a load of water that must havebeen to push back up the bank and over that old rough-looking country.Sometimes that’d be our drinking water for the week. And I think we werethe only ones that had that carted water supply. But other people, they’d havethe yokes, you know, the two kerosene-tin buckets and have a yoke like theChinese have. Anybody’d carry water, but mainly it was the women did itbecause most of the time the men were out working.

I never used to hear people whingeing about it, or talking about someonebeing just too lazy to go and get water or something. It was just somethingthat was done. And weekends, Dad would cut so much wood up. They’d beall carting wood. And sometimes they’d have to walk across the flat to getwood and bring it back. And then, after dinner, I remember the men used toplay marbles.

Every Monday people would go down there and do their washing. Andthat’d be special. You had get-together day and muck-up day and washing day.And then, you know, even on Fridays. Nearly all the men was out working,and Fridays you’d see everyone going down the river about two o’clock andthey’re all having a swim, a bath and getting ready for the pictures. So as

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 14

Page 33: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

they’d have plenty of time to get home and have tea before they go to thepictures. That happened nearly every week. I have fond memories of thosetimes, the Mondays and Fridays with the full community . . . together. So itwas certainly a different lifestyle to what we’ve got today.

And when I think of the services we had! There was the Chinamen’sgarden with two old chinamen—one fella had a white horse and one fella hada black horse, and they used to come around the reserve. One would come onWednesday and another one would come on Friday. Kong Hing was the onewe called ‘the black-horse Chinaman’ and he and his family later moved toSydney. He came around and never talked very much to us, but I know thatthe Aboriginal men used to sort of get around and make him talk to them.The women didn’t bother so much.

And the other old fella had a white horse, and he used to come around,and the same thing used to happen there. We used to get excited when wesaw them coming up the road, because sometimes they’d give us a little bit ofextra grapes or melons and stuff like that, and it was just exciting for us to seethe horse coming and the little carts, and so they became a part of thatservice delivery to us.

There were funerals I remember from this time, but we were sheltered froma lot of grief when I was a young kid. I don’t think I actually attended a burialtill I was about 16. But I remember when we were kids, as soon as anyone passedaway, they were brought straight home to the camp. The body would be placedin the casket and either kept inside or outside under a bough shade. It was aterrifying thing for me, because I didn’t understand what it was about, andeveryone was sad and there was a lot of crying. And next morning everyone’dbe getting ready to take them up and they walked up, with the black casket onan open dray, from where we were camped, right up to the cemetery by thelagoon. There wasn’t a lot of involvement by ministers or white people at all.The community men conducted and took care of the fact that they were buriedproperly, so it was very much our business. And of course us kids weren’tallowed. I had a terrible fear of it and we knew it was a sorry time. I didn’t goto the cemetery much, but I remember the older women when I was a kid,worrying about ‘no one’s going to look after it’—and maybe that was implantedin my mind, but it wasn’t until the years went on that I realised how importantit was.

Nearly all of the men had work on stations and shearing sheds. Remem-bering these things about my childhood, I don’t recall my two older brothersLindsay and Joe being with us a lot. They were nearly always out in the bushwith our Dad, learning to work.

Some men stayed at their jobs for months. I don’t remember seeing ourpeople really drunk, shouting, argumentative or any out of order conduct. Of

‘Owning the World’


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 15

Page 34: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

course Aborigines were excluded from pubs and alcohol. However, if theirboss appreciated their work, they ‘supplied’. I know that this happened withour dad. Plenty of times, Dad would skite up a bit and the next thing you’dknow he’d be asleep.

But it’s good how when I look back at the laws that they had in our littlesociety. I suppose everyone was careful not to attract too much attention aswell as wanting a fairly okay little community, our own world if you like. Oursecurity was each other because we were always monitored, assessed,oppressed by the police. Regular morning and afternoon patrols. I always feltreally afraid when I saw the cops coming. I’d always take off home or if I waswith other kids I’d make sure I was close to the adult there, or all of us kidswould stay inside, whatever we were instructed to do!

See, there was two laws, eh, there was community control . . . theAboriginal Law still was enforced, you know. But not with the approval of thepolice, because the police had their own law and they were pretty heavy andwe had to live by them. But then the community had to live by that com-munity law as well. And if there was a bloke messing around with somebody’swife, and I remember that, and I remember asking: ‘Oh, why they don’t talkto “so and so”?’ and they’d say: ‘Oh, he done a bad thing, you see, and you’llknow about it one day . . . you mustn’t mess around with somebody else’swife’. And he was so colded out he ended up leaving here and that was a partof the law.

And just like there was always someone to organise things, like rounders,there was always someone to settle an argument too. And if they had a fightthey’d have to get out there and fight, you know. We never ever saw any blues.If some started a fight, the older blokes’d take them right away from thecommunity and they’d go somewhere else and fight—down the river orwherever. And you’d hear of the fights going on after. They must’ve used toknock it out of them and have it finished and that was it. The fathers wouldtake those boys away and they had a referee to watch it and they had to fightit out. And I reckon, when I look back on it, there was lots of times where thepunishment had to go both ways because they’d have that fight out, but no oneback at the camp knew who won the fight. And I remember the oldest brothera couple of times he was in those blues, but no one ever knew who won thefights, so there was still a lot of clean parts of the law still being practised.

When Isabel was at the river bank near the Old Camp during 1999, she feltpeaceful and relaxed. Again and again she said to all of us who were there with her:

Isn’t this a lovely area? When you’re here, you can’t help feeling that youown the world, eh? You listen to the birds. Especially up at the cemetery,

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 16

Page 35: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

you can hear a lot of birds’ sounds. And, there’s always a lot of birds hereat the Old Camp, in these trees across the river. Why wouldn’t you feelas if you owned the world living here?

And I think that’s what we did feel . . . we had a feeling of safety.See, to live in a society like that was a wonderful time. It was only lateron that I realised how segregated we were. All that wasn’t in my lifethen. That’s why I say I’ve had many lives . . . different lives.10

When we settled down at Colle, Dad always wanted us to learn to read andwrite because he thought it was the greatest thing for us to learn. But ofcourse, we didn’t even know what the big building in town was for—theschool . . . because that’s where we just . . . There was certainly no chance ofblack kids then getting educated in that school. We didn’t have nothing todo with the white kids in town at all. And when we went to the pictures wealways knew that we lined up and we got in the certain little section. All theblacks were herded down the front and all the whites at the back. We wereright under the screen, screwing our necks up.

Now those two old Chinamen who used to come around the reserve—the one fella with the white horse and one had a black one—we realised

‘Owning the World’


This photo appeared on the front page of Abo Call: The Voice of the Aborigines(an Aboriginal-edited newspaper) in August 1938, in a story about racial segregation atCollarenebri school. Back row from left: Dougie Mills, Edna Thorne, Aubrey Weatherall,Shirley Cunningham, John Thorne. Middle row from left: Joe Flick (partially out ofpicture), Cecil Croaker, Isabel Flick (being held by Aub), Gracie Thorne, Dulcie Thorne(one of last two girls in this row). Front row from left: Rene Thorne, Rene Weatherall,unidentified girl.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 17

Page 36: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

that their kids were going to school, but we couldn’t go because we wereAboriginals.

The school was straight across the road from the old Presbyterian church,and I think the Presbyterian minister’s wife, Mrs Peakes, must’ve decided . . .‘Oh, we’ll try and give these black kids up at the camp some kind of edu-cation’. So twice a week for a half a day we used to skip along down. Theother kids used to go down more often than me, so they were concentratingon the older ones.

But I learnt to count to ten the second time I was there and I rememberthis. The minister said: ‘Come on now, children’ and gave us a little tin andsaid: ‘Come on, we’ll go out and get some pebbles’. And we all went out thereinto the yard, but nobody knows what ‘the pebbles’ are, see? Well, Ted andLindsay and the older boys, Robert Mundy and all those blokes, they’re allstarting to go towards the gate because they didn’t know what ‘the pebbles’are. And I’m thinking: ‘Now, if these blokes go, I’m going too’. And every-body is sort of edging towards the front gate . . . you can imagine that scene,can’t you?

And I remember I had no shoes on and this minister came over and hesaid: ‘Come on, Isabel, come on, you bring your little tin here and we’ll showthe others . . . How many pebbles do you want to pick up, dear?’ And he startspicking up some stones. Well, then everybody goes . . . ‘Oohh!’ and soeveryone is picking up their ‘pebbles’ then! And he said: ‘How many do youwant to go to, Isabel?’ and I said: ‘Oh, ten’. And he said: ‘Oh, you do want tolearn something don’t you?’

And I remember putting these little pebbles in a row and I counted up toten with him and then Mrs Peakes came out and she said: ‘Now, Isabel, theytell me you can count to ten. Well, come on, let me hear you’. And I countedright to ten. Oh, everybody thought that was great. And of course, I thoughtit was too, you know . . . I’m counting to ten. And when we went home thatafternoon then, I said: ‘Oh Mum, guess what? We counted a lot today’, and shesaid: ‘Oh, did you? What did you count?’ . . . ‘We counted pebbles, guess what“pebbles” are?’ Mum didn’t know. She said: ‘What?’ ‘Little stones, that’swhat they are’. So . . . I’ll never forget that!

I never questioned why we didn’t go to school, you know, we just didn’tquestion it because the minister at the church used to take hold of the kids,half a day, twice a week.

But people started to make a noise about the fact that we weren’t entitledto an education, and the big scene came up then about Aboriginal kids goingto school. I remember when old Eva Kennedy and old Olive Shepherd startedto go along to P&C meetings and talk up and push for getting Aboriginal kidsin school. They started to kick up all the fuss in the world, you know, and

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 18

Page 37: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

then something like a fear started to come out among the black people—people were frightened to talk about it and didn’t want to know about it.They’d say: ‘Let them talk about it, we don’t know what they were talkingabout’. Nobody knew. . . . they knew but they didn’t want to know!

When you look at the way those Kennedys had to grow up, eh. Andpeople would say: ‘Oh, they’re uptown niggers,’ and all this and that, youknow. And I think, well they were people with white skin. They couldn’t beblack. To get into the school they had to act like whites. And then they hadto live up to that. It must have been a terrible strain. When you think aboutthe way they had to cope with the whole society. We’re coming clean earlytoday. When some of our kids have a white parent now, we say: ‘Oh, yourmother’s black’, and things like that. But in those days you dare not mentionthat you were related to a black, you know?

Well, those two old women must have decided, then, they’d catch themwhite fellas down the street. And one of them was a minister too. And oldGranny Eva said: ‘Oh look, you just the bloke I want to see’. I remember hersaying that one day, there were a lot of people in the Post Office. ‘Oh, he’s abig minister . . . the big church man’, she said. ‘You’re the fella standing upthere, and you talk about this God. You say, “Oh, suffer the little children tocome unto me”, and all this bullshit. Then you, then you go up there and yousay, “No, we don’t want these little black kids in the school. Because theymight marry our white kids.’’ ’

And he said: ‘Oh no, I’m not . . . I haven’t said that Mrs Kennedy’. And she said: ‘Well I’m telling you. I wouldn’t let one of my kids marry

your kids. If I could stop it, I wouldn’t let one of my kids marry one of yourkids’.

So that was one day, then the next day both of them was together, thetwo old women. And this minister and the secretary at the hospital, theywere standing together and she said: ‘Oh, here they are. Here are the two bigwhite gods got their head together again. Come on let’s us old black girls havea go at these white gods now’. And everybody in the street, you could see allthese blacks saying . . . ‘Oh, they make us shamed, gee they make us shamed’.

Yes it’s always been a bloody fight. Well, round about that time, Iremember we used to have Sunday School under the bough shade on the camphere. I remember going to the Sunday School there, around middle camp. I’dlike to get Rosie’s story on that, because she got involved as the teacher in thecorrespondence school that started to happen in that bough shade.

When Isabel and her sister-in-law, Rosie (Weatherall) Flick, were at the Old Campin 1999, they talked a lot about this bough shade school, and Isabel asked Rosie totell her memories of it:

‘Owning the World’


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 19

Page 38: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Rosie: That bough shade school was across the road from old BillyHardy’s. He lived near to that belah tree and the shade was straightacross from him, and that’s where the ministers used to come for SundaySchool. Old Edgar Mason was the first fella who suggested it for a school.Then Molly Murray’s husband jumped in. It never took them long tobuild the shade up. And I used to put all the reading books and all thatin a box and put them on old Billy Hardy’s table. He used to look afterall the pencils and everything for us . . . 11

I didn’t have any schooling at Colle. I think I must’ve finished myschool at Angledool, you know before we shifted down in 1936. Old MrPeakes, he was a Presbyterian minister in the manse down there at Colleand he was a fella fighting for . . . the fight was on to get the kids intothe school, see. That was in 1938, and it was big. Now everybody likeOld Aunty Amy’s family, when they was on living on Moongulla station,the kids done their own schooling by correspondence, you know? Andthey had to bring the kids to school in Colle then. So they had to fightfor this correspondence to get sent to Colle and that’s how this oldminister found out that there was a school they could get if they couldget somebody to sit with the kids. And I already used to help Aunty Amythen. So Mr Peakes got the correspondence and he had it on the side ofthe manse there, on the sunrise side of the verandah.

Well it was nothing to do with the Education Department or theColle school, you know. The white fellas used to kick up a stink aboutthe Murri kids. Some of the little fellas used to be cheeky enough to goand have a look. All the kids would be playing at the school there andthe Murri kids would come across the road from the manse and have asticky-beak at the white kids. They weren’t allowed in the gate, they’dlook over the fence. And the white parents kicked up about that andthe teacher started to write letters home to the parents to keep the kidsaway.

And so the old minister said: ‘Then the only thing to do is take themup and school them in their own environment’. So he took me down toArmidale, him and his wife, and I had to go to school down there. Well,that’s what they were saying; but I think myself, what they took me downfor was to see if I could handle that correspondence work.

And so I was the one helping the kids: I’d just watch them, anythingthey couldn’t do I’d help them do it. The old minister used to come upevery day for a while to see if the kids was behaving themselves. But theythought it was hilarious. Only Freddy Mason used to bail up on me for abit. Then this old minister would come up after school closed and he’dtake this big box with him. Because we had no place to put it or

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 20

Page 39: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

anything, and in the morning about eight-thirty he’d bring it back up.Open for business again!

But then old Uncle Billy Hardy said he could leave his trunk overthere, so we used to just put it in on his kitchen table. And then in themorning the old fella used to cart it across then and Mr Peakes justposted all their work, and then he’d bring the new stuff back when it wasall corrected. I had to hand the postage to him. The parents was paying15 pennies to the minister, and with that money he was getting he usedto give me a wage, see.

And it all had to be worked by clockwork, because I think by thenthe Education Department started to poke their beak in. They waswaiting for something to stop it, you know. The school inspector come,he came up there twice . . . I had to go around and tell them. I told oldUna Thorne, she was a good old fallback, and I said: ‘They bringing theinspector up, this might get our kids into the school . . . ’ Old Mr Peakeused to write letters and get me to sign it and everything, for the kids togo into the public school. So I used to tell old Una then: ‘They’resending the bloke up to inspect . . .’

And every second day or third day it seemed like a white policemanand somebody would come up to inspect them for sores and everything,you know. That was the shameful part, I thought. But any rate, everybodytook it in their stride. The little fellas would be sitting there cleaning theirnails in the morning. Clean fingernails, that was a must, you know . . .clean skin. Old Una used to tell them then: ‘Do them kids’ heads formuni,12 the policeman is coming up to look again’. Because the parentshad the sole idea that any kid that was dirty would be taken, and so thekids was always shining and plaits in their hair and everything. And whenthe inspector come, he was fascinated how clean they was. And they wasworking under a bough shade! So any rate, they got a teacher then—a white man. But the Murris didn’t want him there in our camp. Theywanted anybody except for a white man, you know. I think they was allhappy with me teaching the kids because they’d smile and tell me thingsabout the kids too.

The kids was good, they all done their work. Even the older ones. Ifone couldn’t do anything, the older ones would help. One girl, Una’sdaughter, if a kid was saying ‘I can’t do this’, she’d be the first one to getup and have a look. She used to break a stick off the bough shade andbreak it up into, say, twenty twigs and she’d say: ‘Put that eight away andcount how many you’ve got left and put that down’. And they used torub a slice of bread into a little ball for a rubber. So you made use ofwhatever you had around.

‘Owning the World’


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 21

Page 40: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The parents’d come up to me and say: ‘There’s 15 pence for so-and-so’, if they was up that area, and put all the money there and I’d give itto this old minister. He had an exercise book and he used to write thenames down and who was paying all this money and he had to keep arecord of it for their correspondence Education Department, see. Theparents wanted their kids to get educated, see. They was finding that15 pence, yeah, finding the money and giving it to this old minister. Thekids used to take their books home and show their parents what workthey was doing, you know. Because a lot of their mothers and fatherscouldn’t read and write too, and that’s what they were saying: ‘That’s agood thing to think he’s going to learn to read and write, because I can’t’.

So that’s how Rosie came to be the black teacher at the school on the OldCamp, but I didn’t see that correspondence school straight away.

The Colle camp was the first one where we’d started to feel settled. ButMum had bad eyes and all of a sudden she was going to have to go away toTamworth for operations. And I remember the coppers talking to her one dayon the camp there . . . I always remember the way the dust sort of settled onthese leggings. They used to have these big leggings and big shiny shoes andone thing I used to always remember was the way the dust was on those shoes. . . ’Cause we was always looking down, I suppose . . .

And I remember him saying something about ‘. . . because the kids wouldbe better off ’, and then something about these ‘homes’ and ‘. . . Oh, they’d bea lot better off ’. They thought Mum wasn’t a proper person to look after us.And when they started to talk about Cootamundra and Kinchela I started toget real sick in the tummy.

And a couple of times they’d come back, and we . . . well, we got awaythen. It must have just been the next few days or so. I remember we was alltaken to Toomelah mission. Dad took us up and me and Joe stayed there withour Granny Jane, Mum’s mother. And at the same time Toomelah itself wasjust being settled. Coming from Old Toomelah at Euraba [because the watersupply had failed]. So after I learnt to count to ten, I graduated to Toomelah,you see . . .

A lot of people can’t understand that the bitterness—about the pictureshow colour bar and the other segregation in Collarenebri—didn’t stay withme. But I think the bitterness about us not being allowed to go to schoolstayed a long time, because I was eager to learn a lot and I was getting frus-trated and hurt because I missed out on that education. But I think things likethat helped me make the changes in my life. And so they were the peoplethat directed me to where . . . I guess, where I am today.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 22

Page 41: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

2Toomelah Mission: A Place of Learning,1938–1942

‘I look back now and say that at Toomelah I was introduced to school—a place of learning or one could say a whole world of yearning . . . ’Isabel’s notes for a talk she gave in 1999

When I look back I think even though we had a hard life in lots of cases,like going through being sent to Toomelah, I can’t remember us crying orbeing sad about being sent there. It was like we expected that as somethingthat we had to do. I think Mum and Dad handled that very well, therewas no tears, we weren’t upset. ‘You’ll only be there for a little while’, theysaid, ‘so the main thing is to do what you’re told and Granny Jane will lookafter you’.

And sure enough, she did. When we got there she was so matter-of-factabout everything, and she’d just arrived herself. We got there just wheneverybody else was being moved from Old Toomelah, to Toomelah just out ofBoggabilla. We had no house there. We just had to get on there and make ourlittle camp, a little bush break. Joe stayed with another family and there wasthree of us there with Gran—me and my cousin Florrie and the other cousinBob. Florrie Boland was one of Mum’s cousins. It was Gran’s brother’sdaughter, and he’d died when she was only little so she was with her. Andfrom time to time my aunties came and went.

Because they’d all just arrived, they only had little makeshift camps, justold pieces of tins and some had little bark huts. It was like they were allrefugees. And I don’t remember anyone being nasty or upset about being


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 23

Page 42: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

there. They just accepted that we must make it good for ourselves. This waswhen the Protection Board was really in.

And it was cold, or we used to think it would be cold when they weretalking about it. But she showed us how to help her build her little mia mia outof leaves, by putting three sticks up like a ti-pi, then putting leaves all around.Then she helped us to build one for each of us. Then she said: ‘Oh, we’ll showyou how to make a little bed’, so you’d dig a little place to lie in and she showedus how to put all the leaves in there to make it soft. Then you’d get the hotwater in the saucepan from off the fire, and you’d place the saucepan in thehole there and warm it up. I remember we had a couple of coats that we had tolie on, military coats, and a couple more to cover over with. And we had thesnuggest little bed. And I had my own, Florrie and Bobby had theirs and Granhad hers. So we had the three little mia mias circled around hers. This was thefirst couple of nights we were there. And then they started building little tincamps, you know, everybody finding what they could and building camps fromjust about everything—bags, bark, tin . . . Granny Jane used to get in and startnailing the tins up, and then somebody else would come along and nail a fewmore tins, until we finally got our own camp.

Granny was such a lovely person to us. She was real caring and she’d tellus yarns and then all of a sudden she’d say: ‘But you don’t want to worry,everything will be right now. You’ll be right. We’re going to get youse out

Isabel Flick


Mia Mia like those Isabel remembered at Toomelah in 1938. This was constructed byIsabel and the other women during the making of the film about Toomelah, Inard Oongali:Women’s Journey, NPWS, 2000.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 24

Page 43: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

soon, they going to build a house for us’. And then when they built thehouses, we were watching the houses being built you know, and she’d say: ‘Ohthat’s our house over there . . . ’—a little two-room house.

Then there was these builders coming in and old Fred Reece—a Murrifrom round Lightning Ridge—was one of them. The people started to say:‘Oh there’s a black fella up there, he’s a builder. And he’s building thesecamps and . . . ’ As one house would go up, one family would go into it. Andthey turned out to be nice houses, you know, they built nice houses.

Old Ronnie MacIntosh used to be the handyman and he used to comearound and be talking to everybody all the time. He’d be saying to Gran:‘Now don’t worry about nothing. You don’t have to worry about anything’.And he’d go right around saying: ‘You leave it to us Murris now and we’ll talkto the managers. Don’t you worry because we don’t want you fellas to rowwith them. We’ll fix things up if anything goes wrong’.

And then old Aunty Kate—the old woman next door to us and Gran—they were talking and laughing about this one day and Gran said: ‘You knowthat Ronnie, he’s a real two-face, eh? He’s telling the old boss this, and thepoor old boss believing it too. But he’s telling us different eh? We know itsdifferent! He’s a real two-face, eh?’ And they were both laughin’! Old AuntyKate would say: ‘Yeah, that boss don’t want to find out!’

And I was really hurt, because everybody loved Uncle Ronnie becausehe used to teach people to dance or garden or anything. He was real good ateverything. And I went round to my cousin and said, ‘You know what I heardGranny saying about Uncle Ron? She’s trying to say that he’s got two faces!But I don’t think he has! Because I only seen the one face. She’s trying tomake out he’s got two heads or something!’

Now she was older than me, you see, ‘Oh you’re silly’, she said, ‘They’reonly saying he’s trying to make everything right for us. It’s nothing to do withhis face’. And she busted out laughing! I could hear her telling Gran andAunty Kate after and they thought it was a great joke because I was lookingfor the other face! I forgot about it straight away. It was funny . . . until lateron, and you know, when you think about it, everything was so serious, every-body was so serious.

And then I remember something else about what I’d call a mass migra-tion of Aboriginals being brought from Tingha, there was some kind of fearabout it but I didn’t understand why, there was a feeling of fear among thepeople.1 So it makes you wonder just what tactics these people might’veexperienced before they came to Toomelah to make them move. Perhaps itcould’ve been talked around, but that’s something that’s always confused me.Why? Why did we all feel such fear when these people arrived? That wasnot long after we arrived at Toomelah, say 12 months after. There were no

Toomelah Mission


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 25

Page 44: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

houses built for them, they sort of lived around with different people thatwas game enough or willing enough to take them in for a while until furtherhouses got built.

I remember we used to try and avoid them, it didn’t matter who theylived with, and they did the same with us. So, you know, they were torn awayfrom their rightful place and rejected because of a feeling that they hadsomehow carried out an invasion on the people in Toomelah. Finally theywere accepted, as the houses were built. But I don’t think they stayed verylong either, they stayed about another 12 months and then they returned towherever they came from.

Now when we first went to Toomelah, when everybody was settlingthere, I had my first introduction to a blackboard and class. A young mancalled George Cubby was teaching us on an old log. That’s a fabulous old log,the biggest fallen tree I’ve ever seen. That became our blackboard and wewere learning how to write a–b–c and 1–2–3 on it with charcoal. This wasbefore any of the buildings were finished, while we were still waiting for allthose things to happen.

George Cubby was about 18 or 20, and I don’t know how it was arrangedthat he was going to teach us, but he used to go up there first and then we’d allwander up there. They’d say: ‘Your Uncle George has popped in’. And whenwe’d get there he’d start saying: ‘Today . . . you probably want to learn how towrite this. And you make your letters first. You’ve got to make your letters first’.And I’d hear him saying, ‘Tomorrow youse bring your own charcoal. I’ve gotsome charcoal here, but tomorrow you bring your own charcoal’, and every-body’d have their own charcoal. ‘And you learn your numbers 1–2–3. And youlearn your A–B–C’, and that’s how we learnt. I used to want to learn to makea 2 like he made the 2. And he’d say: ‘Just do it like that. That’ll do’. I said: ‘No.I just want to make a 2 like you make it, with all the curls on it’.

He was such a patient fellow. And we’d go and play and some wouldcome back and some wouldn’t come back. But the ones that came back, well,they were learning something. And he was the only fella that all the peopletrusted with the kids. He could take them swimming and he could take theminto town, anywhere. And he had a way with us, you know. He never shoutedat anybody.

Joe didn’t want to stay with Granny Jane and us, because he and grandidn’t get on and that happened straight away. He wanted to stay with TedHynch, old Uncle Daduwin we used to call him. And I could hear the oldwoman, old Aunty Nora, she was saying, ‘Well let him come and stay withus, we can all watch him. We’re all going to try and watch him, you know,and look after him’. And Dad: ‘Yeah, I think he likes going with the OldFella’. And that was it, Joe lived with them, and I lived down here. We didn’t

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 26

Page 45: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

meet a lot, you know, and we were all in the mission together. And then we’dgo to school, of course, we’d meet up there. He had his mates, I had my mates.

It was a very controlled time in our lives when we lived at Toomelah. Youhad to get permission for everything. Everything was arranged and there wasa lot of church services and Sunday school. (Of course, some of us liked goingto Sunday School!) I think Granny protected us, kept us away as much aspossible from the manager but it was very bewildering really, you could say itwas frightening. You knew Mondays and Wednesdays the manager’s wife wasgoing to do a big inspection. Not only looking through the houses, butlooking the kids over to see if they’ve got sores or headlice. And so, Mondaymorning everybody’s up early and you’re all cleaned up and the house wascleaned up and everybody was just standing around waiting for this visit. Andthen once she visits the house, everybody relaxes.

We could look through the cracks in the door and see, ‘Oh here comesMatron Clarke’. And Granny would herd us all into one place and we’d bewatching to see what’s going on. And if she decides she wants to go in andsee the whole house, well, she would walk in on us—all peeping through thecrack! It was incredible the way people relaxed after she went. When youremember it back and see how uptight everybody was before the visit andthen how they relaxed after it, it definitely was fear they were feeling.

Toomelah Mission


New Toomelah Sunday School, c. 1940. (Photograph from Aborigines Protection Boardfiles, AIATSIS N3719.1 Reproduced with permission of AIATSIS and the NSW WelfareBoard.)

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 27

Page 46: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Any little thing being wrong at that house, might be just something toaffect the families personally, the Matron had the right to correct it all orhave it done the way she wanted it done. And if it wasn’t done, it wasreported to the manager and the manager would send for them. Thehandyman would come and say, ‘The manager wants to see you in the office’,and if you didn’t go to the office, you had to be prepared for another visit fromthe manager. So mainly they’d go to the manager to save this further intru-sion like that.

Once they got the buildings up, the manager and his wife taught us at theschool for a long time, about six or eight months and then they got an ad-ditional teacher. We were there all day, different from Collarenebri. But wedid a lot of marching and raising the flag . . . a terrible lot of that, and assem-blies. If we didn’t march properly first, I remember, it was ‘Halt!’ and pull theoffenders out, put them back in a line again and off we’d go again. I remembermyself and Lizzy Ellis—we were two returned servicemen’s daughters—andwe’d always be out of step. Lizzy would mainly try to be really erect, but Icouldn’t seem to get into it anyhow, even though I remember I was tryingbecause I thought, well, it was very important the flag flying and this bigmarch. It’s stupid when I look back on it now! And then a lot of time wasspent with his wife learning us to knit.

But I did learn to read and write there. I don’t think I learnt a lot fromthe manager himself. There were two classrooms and he used to be back andforwards and stand you in a corner if you didn’t do this or that, and correctyour book. I don’t know what he was doing really, I don’t think he did a greatdeal in actually teaching us anything. But when the new teacher came along. . . I don’t know whether she concentrated on me a bit more but maybe shefelt that all she could do was try and give some kids some ideas on how theycan learn to read and write and leave it at that. This is what she did to me.She said, ‘Now if you don’t know a big word, sound it out’. First of all we werelearning the sounds so you can put the words together and see what it soundslike and keep at it until you find out. And she said: ‘Read and read as muchas you can’.

And that’s the only way I got what bit of education I got, because I can’tattribute it to anything else. You know, history and all that was only CaptainCook and how brave he was. There wasn’t anything at all about Aboriginalpeople. The only thing I can remember them saying was—in my last yearthere—‘Oh, one day you will be working with white people and so you haveto be able to dress well and speak well and so you should concentrate on yourwork’. I think that’s all they taught us, that one day we were going to be . . .well, they didn’t say ‘assimilate’ which was good I suppose, because we didn’tanyhow, but they said, ‘you’ll go into the white society’.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 28

Page 47: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

See we’d had very little contact with white people at all. So as soon aswe saw white people coming, well, maybe we were warned, ‘Have nothing todo with them’, in case we might’ve said something that indicated where wemight be found or something, I think. Because I still feel this. But we had verylittle contact whatsoever with white people off the mission. If anyone wantedto go into town they were strictly on the manager’s wish. We knew that thewhite manager and matron were there to control the blacks, to make surethey didn’t leave the mission without permission, or come onto the missionwithout permission, or someone sneak in and be a bit drunk (it didn’t haveto be quarrelsome or abusive or anything)—that’s the only way I could see it.They were there to keep law and order.

Not long ago, I was helping to make a film with other women about ourearly times at Toomelah. And we went out there and camped. And then thewhite farmer that owns the place, and some of the neighbours too, came inthere and had tea and a barbecue and dampers. They sat around and talkedstraight out about how some parts of their family was nasty towards Aborigi-nal people. And another lot used to just have little run-ins with them overdifferent groups of Aboriginals and things like that. I could see a lot of thatstuff must’ve been happening to them. This one fella said: ‘We couldn’t evengo outside when the Aboriginal people came to the homestead for something.We had to stay inside’. So, they were much like us. When the white peopleused to come we used to go under the bed!

There were a couple of kids taken away while I was there, because theythought the mother was mad, and that was my grandmother’s brother’s wife.Yeah, there was two—Henry and Susan, that’s right. And years later Henrytried to make some kind of contact with his people. He joined the merchantnavy in the Second World War and we read in some paper where he wastrying to contact some of his people and by the time we tried to contact himhe was out at sea and there was an accident or something and he was killed.We never, never heard about Susan. But they thought their mother was mad,which wasn’t so. She just couldn’t handle the situations she was in, you know,coming from different places. The manager’s wife was closely in touchbecause I suppose she was summing her up to see whether she was mad or not.And then when the Matron decided she was mad, that was it.

There’s one thing I remember clearly. There was a mass wedding once.It wasn’t a double wedding, it was about six couples married at once.2 Icouldn’t figure it out—you know, you couldn’t all just fall in love and alldecide to . . . [laughs] There had to be a reason, there had to be a reason forthose kind of marriages because they weren’t worrying about getting extrahouses for these newlyweds, making them marry properly in their churchesand things. They got married on the mission in a little hall there they had,

Toomelah Mission


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 29

Page 48: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

got the minister out from Goondiwindi and just stood them all up there andthey were all married there. And it makes you wonder about that, doesn’t it?And those marriages didn’t work out at all. You’d hear the old people say: ‘OhI don’t think that one will work out’ or ‘I don’t think that one will last’.I don’t think any were a real long term partnership. As the managers keptchanging, some of the girls were more favoured by certain managers and italways makes me think this could’ve been the reason, you know? I’ve heardit said that it’s happened in other places where managers did have their littlefling with the girls, and perhaps they got afraid that they might be pregnantand so set them all up with mates and married them off—so they’re protectedagain. And the Protection Board was working well—you know, in theirfavour! And I think nearly all of these girls, with the exception of one or two,worked at the manager’s house, and the others were apprenticed girls.

And of course, they were changing their system all the time, as they’redoing today, they keep changing the system so the protection goes on in theirfavour, to keep us from ruling our own lives. It’s so true that we won’t rule ourown lives under the present systems that they keep setting up. Because theyset up blacks to fight blacks. You get blacks in the public service that goaround and make it sound all rosy and it’s not going to work—you know,people are going to have to rebel against it. And I’m one that’s ready to.I am ready!

The treatment room was a big part of our lives as kids. All of us had soreeyes, and we’d have to get this stick of what they called bluestone.3 They’drub this little stick across our eyes—and it used to sting like hell! Then weused to have these brown drops put in our eyes, or sometimes it’d be pink.And if we had a sore, there’d be all this pink paint all over us. We had a lotof our own stuff too. If we had boils, Gran’s main thing was a soap and sugarpoultice, where you’d rub the sugar into the soap and make a paste out of it.Then there were other different plants they’d boil up for us and make a coughmixture out of it. So we had a lot of our own medicine, and we had a lot ofour own food too, because the only thing we’d get on the rations was flour,sugar, tea, jam and condensed milk. And that would just be a small order. Soin most cases we’d have a lot of fish. And that’s where old Uncle Daduwinused to be the real bloke to teach the kids how to hunt, so we’d always haverabbit or goanna or emu, whatever they could get.

We used to watch these rations given out, and everybody’s standing inline to get their rations. And this other girl—Jeannie Bathman—and myself,we thought: ‘Well, we don’t get enough condensed milk’, and we lovedcondensed milk. So we were looking at ways and how we could nick a coupleof tins, which we finally did one day. We saw the board was loose under thestoreroom, got up there and got our tins of condensed milk. But of course, we

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 30

Page 49: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

were found out not long after, and so we got the hiding of our life. My Grannygave me a good hiding, Jeannie’s mother gave me a good hiding. Because themanager went down and said:

‘What a dreadful thing they’ve done. You wouldn’t believe what thesegirls did? They took a board out of . . . ’

—well, it was a loose board, all we had to do was shove it up and we werein . . . no, she was in, she was skinnier than me—

‘ . . . and these girls went up there and lifted the floorboards and pinchedcondensed milk.’

—Gees! we got a hiding for that!See they set up blacks to fight blacks. And it was hard to trust people.

Like old Granny Kate our next door neighbour used to say: ‘You can’t trustthis Lizzie’—she was my older cousin . . . ‘you can’t trust this Lizzie, you know,she’s got a big mouth this Lizzie’. ‘No, not Lizzie’, I said, because she was mymate, she was my best mate you see. And Granny Kate used to say: ‘Don’t youtell her now. Don’t tell nobody’. And I said: ‘I won’t tell nobody’. ‘No, butthis Lizzie, you can’t trust Lizzie’. We used to say to Lizzie, ‘If you tell I’mgoing to tell on you!’ We never ever caught her out or anything. But we knewwe had to be very careful.

And when I look at Toomelah, I can’t say that I had an unhappy time there.I had a very protected time. There was only one old woman that used todrink, and not too many women used to drink at all then. We used to thinkthat she had some kind of sickness, and that’s the way they let us think abouther. And I said one day to Gran: ‘Why is it that Old Mary has this bug in thehead?’ And Gran said: ‘I suppose she has too. I don’t know, that’s how whenshe gets sick she don’t know us anymore and she’ll go to sleep or fall over andshe could hurt herself ’. And so she was telling us all the things like that,you know.

And of course, we got it in our heads then that she was a bit wamba4 andthat’s how they let us leave it until we got older and then we started to knowthat she was drunk. But she was the only woman that was drunk. I didn’tthink much of it then, and later old Dad said: ‘Oh, poor old Mary she’d hada few’. And I said: ‘A few of what?’ ‘A few drinks’, he said, ‘you know she’s adrunk?’ And I said: ‘Oh, so she was drunk’. And then a long time after I wastelling her about it and she laughed: ‘Oh yeah not many women drunksthen!’

And isn’t it marvellous when you think about that. A lot of men used todrink the grog, but not too many women. You can say that right up until the1960s when I realised I was coming in contact with many more women whowas drinking; before that there have been two Aboriginal women in my life

Toomelah Mission


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 31

Page 50: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

that I knew were drinking. And I didn’t think much about white womendrinking either, because they said only men did it.

Mum and Dad used to come up and see us, but not always together. Mum keptcoming up to Toomelah, she was back and forth to come and see us. And wehad a little sister, Ceatrice, when Mum came up. And she stayed for a while—I don’t know whether I was sick or Joe was sick—but it was then that we lostthat little sister; she was only a couple of months old I think. She died whenMum came up to see us.

If Dad came to see us he had to ring up and get permission, and then hewas only allowed to stay for an hour. So, he’d just come in there long enoughto sort of promise us that it wouldn’t be long, that Mum was coming out ofthe eye hospital and we were going to go out on a big station somewhere andlive. They’d only let him come in sometimes. Other times he’d go thereand think he was going to visit us and they’d tell him that he couldn’t see us,or they’d tell him that we were fishing or something. But I don’t know howthey kept him away from there because he was forever trying to make thingsright for us.

Gran would’ve been the nicest little person I ever met. I think she showedme how strong you had to be and you could be. One day the manager caughther talking to us in the lingo . . . She did everything for us, she made sure therewas hot water for our bath and she’d fill the little bath tub and everything.And this day, he’d come around the corner and stood by her: ‘Jane I heard you.You were talking that lingo again to them girls. You can’t do that you know.You know you’re not supposed to that. I’m disgusted with you Jane!’

And I could see Gran standing there and she didn’t know what to say,you know. And he kept going on about it . . . ‘And you know you’re notsupposed to talk that stupid lingo now. We’re finished with that. You’ve gotto be like white people now’. And Gran would say: ‘Yeah, I know I shouldn’thave said that. I won’t do that no more’. And when he went away then I feltreally hurt about it. The funny thing was, I wanted to blame Gran. I said toFlorrie: ‘Gee Gran makes you mad, eh? She knows she’s not supposed to talkthat lingo to us. And yet she’ll keep on talking it to us. Oh, and listen toher’. And Florrie said: ‘Oh you don’t take any notice of Gran, you know,they talk it all the time. I hear them talking, I don’t take any notice. Youwant to shut your ears off ’. I knew I couldn’t talk to Gran about it, and shenever ever spoke the lingo to us again. Years later I can remember that hurt,and I’m bitter that I was angry with Gran herself, although I didn’t under-stand it then of course. But when I thought about it after, you know,I thought: ‘Fancy me being angry with Gran, and Granny was such a lovelyperson to us’.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 32

Page 51: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But being at Toomelah was a good learning thing for us. Joe must’ve learnta lot about hunting; because I learnt a lot about getting baits for fishing, thebest way to put a worm on the hook, what were the best berries and fruit toeat, what was dangerous. And Granny used to take us down one side of theriver, around the bend, to go fishing. And it was real fun times, you know, weused to run along—no shoes on—I don’t know how we did it, you know. OldGran would say, ‘I don’t know what these kids are grizzling about?’ . . . [laughs]Sometimes Gran would drag her little feet along in front of us to make a pathfor us, and then if Florrie was in a good mood she’d be next to Gran and she’ddo the same and it was a bit better for me. And Bobby was the youngest. Andof course, he’d be the bloke getting the piggyback. He was all right.

The boys were allowed to go hunting more often than the girls wereallowed into the bush, the older people there in that community made thatrule. Charlie Denison was the oldest one there. And then, some of the olderwomen would take us fishing for miles. Sometimes we’d walk all those milesfor nothing—they wouldn’t catch a fish. Of course then it wasn’t a real goodtrip back. We’d go hunting for fruits too, you know. But the boys would goout and hunt the animals when they were anything from nine up, and evenyounger than that, some of them could knock a rabbit in one hit with abundi5—they were shown how to make them so they all had their own littlebundis the same as what kids have got their little tennis bats and thingstoday.

People used to fish with mainly cord lines and make up their own linesout of anything—especially the set lines, whatever they could find they’dfix up and make their own hooks out of wire. They very seldom used nets,but some of the older women got into the streams and actually caught fishin their dresses. Our Granny did, and Old Granny Kate—they’d do thosekinds of things, you know. And we used to go and get craybobs in buckets,and sometimes we’d walk miles to get them—that was . . . oh, anywhere wewent, like, even Toomelah or Colle—that was a real treat to go out for cray-bobbing. Sometimes we’d make our own little nets, and other times just sitthere and fish them out one by one with our hands or with cotton lines orrag-lines or whatever we could find. We’d end up having a big meal out ofit. We used to mainly put them in the ashes and of course, a lot of peopleliked to just put them in the big billy and boil them up and put plenty ofsalt on them . . .

Now one of the McGradys, Widdy McGrady, old Aunty Carrie’s son, wasa really talented artist. He made his own guitar out of a willow tree and wonthe prize at the Goondiwindi show and people offered a lot of money to buyit. Now he was always playing tricks on people. I suppose in our communitieswe always had a joker, like we always had an organiser. And this day, he drew

Toomelah Mission


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 33

Page 52: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

a fish and cut it out from the thin, flat tin they used to line a fireplace. Myold Granny and a couple of the old women would always go fishing in thisone spot, and they’d have their lines set. So he went down and he hooked itto one of the old girls’ lines. When she went down, she started pulling theline in and she’s saying, ‘Oh look out! I got a big fish!’ And everyone’s runningup and saying ‘Oh, somebody’s gotta help her!’ and she’s pullin’ this line inand the fish is swaying in the water, but it’s really this tin! Well! When theygot it out, they didn’t know what to do . . . they just sat there lookin’ at thistin fish! Then someone said: ‘I know who did this!’ So they got really crankythen. Old Aunty Carrie was a Christian and everybody’s sayin’, ‘You can’t goand tell her’. But the old girls said, ‘We’re gonna tell her all right! It don’tmatter how she takes it, we’re still gonna go and tell her!’ And I think the ladwas getting a bit uneasy too because the word was getting around! WellAunty Carrie went mad and called Widdy home and went really crook onhim. And then after a while, the old girls was saying: ‘I knew the next thinghe’d do would be something silly like this!’ And then they all startedlaughing! So that became a very special fish yarn!

They used to have a lot of dances at Toomelah, and very well controlleddances because they still had community leaders. Anyone that wanted tokick up a fuss, well they just made them leave. They had that kind of control.Some of the old people went along just for that purpose. Ronnie MacIntoshwas a wonderful dancer. He and his wife had a lot of ballroom dancing skills.When they had dances he was always the MC and he’d take charge of it. Andif anybody’d be playing up, which they very seldom did, he’d be the fellathat’d have to put them out. I can’t remember anyone having a real problemwith the dances because there was no alcohol, but of course there was peoplesometimes who’d get jealous of their wives and he’d go around, wordingpeople up . . . You know, ‘Don’t be dancin’ too much with this one over here’and things like that. I suppose he had the real knowledge and control overwhat people were doing at the time, and he played a very valuable role withthe boss, as they called the manager. And we learned later that Uncle Ronniewas able to make a lot of suggestions like building the tennis court for the kidsand the hall. See the dances we used to have were all on the flat. Then weended up getting our own hall and stage and we used to have concerts anddances there then. They had accordions and gum-leaf bands and spoons—that was mainly the music.

But there’s one dance in the lingo I can remember, but it’s a funny one.It tells the story of the black fellas looking out and they see this great big shipcoming—and it’s the landing of Captain Cook. That was the Salt Water one.And it was sung at nearly all the dances. This Teddy Trapman would come inand this was a highlight of the dance, he’d say:

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 34

Page 53: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

salt waternagurabibandurabiwandingayii, salt waternagurabi, bandurabi


He’d go on with this—it was terrific. And that was telling the story,singing the song and moving back at the same time. He used to focus with hishands like he’s got binoculars and this is how this little song used to go . . .saying that this ship was coming over the salt water. And there were move-ments, like choreography, that were part of the dance, but I suppose we justcalled it the Salt Water or the Nagurabi Corroboree. The music was mainly thepeople stamping out the song. Sometimes others joined in, but mainly TeddyTrapman took the floor because he could do it so well and graceful. And he’dget up to such a high pitch! I don’t know what other people thought of it butI guess they thought like me that it meant that the Murris started to moveback when they saw this big ship coming in and wondered what it was. Andso it was the landing of Captain Cook. That dance was made up somewherein that region—Mungindi or Boggabilla way, somewhere out there. AndRonnie MacIntosh was another one that could do it really well.

And that was the thing in those days. Today they’ve got this ‘Porcupineand a Flagon of Wine’ song they sing.7 But I remember that in those times,Nagurabi was the little song. That was a very popular part of any dances thatwas held in the area at that time.

They used to have more corroborees on Toomelah when they first movedover there. I remember the Emu dance being done, and with such reverence,you know, everyone just sat around and there was no laughing or giggling orany of that allowed. There was one dance that they’d do that was the funnyone, I used to laugh at that one. But with this other one, don’t you dare laugh,it was so serious; so we were getting briefed on it, so we knew how to conductourselves. And I remember that Emu dance was done mainly by thewomen—old Granny Whiteman and all them. I remember one where thesewomen got dressed up. But men were in that dance as well, that was beforethe Tingha people came down, must have been in late 1938 or 1939. I’d saythat was one of the last corroborees that they’d held out that way.

The mission manager used to go to town and sometimes he’d be in theretill late. The girls in the house would tell the handyman and he would get theword out that they were going to be in town all day. So the word would be outthat everybody was going out to Granny Whiteman’s for the corroboree.Someone was watching for the truck, and they were sneaking that corroboree.

Toomelah Mission


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 35

Page 54: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

They held it down a bit, on the side of the mission where old GrannyWhiteman had her place. And I remember watching when the old couplewould be walking around hitching themselves up and getting ready for thedance. And everyone else was all sitting around having a good old time, youknow, with the boomerangs.

I thought how smart they were. They’d have the two boomerangs andthey’d hit ’em together and somehow they’d make all these different sort ofsounds. And now when I think back, they used to make different notes,I suppose you’d say. And then they’d have these clap sticks. Old GrannyWhiteman, I was watching her doing that Emu dance.

And when they’d start the corroboree, this bloke would go up the tree—and he was about 16 or 17—he was the watcher. He used to watch for thetruck. And I didn’t think about it until later, you know, I started saying tosome of the other women: ‘Do you remember how Charlie used to be alwaysrunning and then he’d swing onto something and he’d go up in the tree, andhe was a real smart young man’. And they said: ‘Yeah, he used to be thelookout’. And they’d do this Emu dance and a couple of other dances theyused to do. I used to love old Granny Kate doing that—the Emu dance . . .oh, they’d be having a helluva time, you know. Everybody laughing.

And then all of a sudden this fellow would give out a loud whistle andbe coo-eeing out! And then down he’d come. And they’d all be saying,‘We’ve got to go home now. Don’t you go saying nothing about this’. I wasn’tallowed to tell anybody. We had the message, we weren’t allowed to talkabout it again. ‘Don’t tell who [ever] asks you.’ They’d know it would onlybe the boss that would ask us anyway. They’d say: ‘Don’t tell who asks you.‘You’re not to say nothing’. So we made sure to say: ‘We wasn’t anywhere.We didn’t go anywhere’. They see the manager’s car coming—everybody’djust go back to their own business again, looking like they were visiting oneanother and things like that. [laughs] Oh, they were smart that way too,you know.

The way they started to build that place, it makes you think. They builtthe manager’s house and, of course, that was a big house and it had averandah all round and the teacher’s house and the big treatment room. Andwhere they used to give the tucker out. They had a bell. On dole days every-body would be ready and waiting for this dole. And for the old bell to go.8

Looking back on it, I can see everybody sort of waited to make sure theycould do that corroboree safely—whatever it was they had to convince them-selves that it would be okay, they wouldn’t have any problems. So they werealways on guard. And we were still doing some of the things they didn’t wantus to do. To me, they had this determination that they weren’t going to letanything make them unhappy.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 36

Page 55: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

I was lucky I was able to have a bit of insight into mission life as well as flatlife and then scrub life too, I suppose you can say. Because that’s how we got abroader knowledge of what was happening, although we didn’t realise that atthe time. And then you can compare that mission lifestyle to the lifestyle onthe Old Camp up at Colle, where you had the police patrol coming aroundanything up to three to four times a day. They’d probably be coming around inthe morning about nine o’clock, sometimes earlier than that. You’d never knowwhat time. You wouldn’t get used to the time, because they’d do like swoopraids—or musters if you want to call it that, you know. So it wasn’t so differentfrom the mission.

It was while I was at Toomelah that I began to realise that we were peoplewithout rights. I remember the time that Bill Ferguson and Bertie Grovescame. Even though they were Aboriginals, they weren’t allowed on themission (when I heard them later I understood why!) and so they werecamped about half a mile across the road. Those two activists went all overNew South Wales saying to Aboriginal people: ‘You fellas have got to get up.

Toomelah Mission


Celia Flick’s exemption certificate.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 37

Page 56: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

We gotta be saying, “We want citizens’ rights in our own country—We ownthis country!” ’ I remember my Gran saying to us, ‘Now these men that’scamped over there, they want to talk to us about what we should be doing.But we gotta wait till it’s dark and we gonna sneak out so youse all got to bequiet! So no cryin’ or anything when you get bindi-eyes in your foot or stufflike that’. I can just remember all of us going through the tall grass andsneaking out to that meeting. And everyone was really quiet and you couldonly hear those two men talking to us . . .

One of the things that always stuck in my mind was Billy Fergusonsaying: ‘We can’t do it for you, you fellas gotta do it for us, we all have to doit together. And we have to make this government realise that we’re citizens,we want rights in this country! And if we don’t say it, nobody else is gonnasay it for us!’

Another thing they said was that because we were not even citizens ofour own country, that we had to have a ‘licence’, which I later got to knowas ‘dog licence’.9 I heard a lot about these ‘dog licences’ from time to timeafter that, but never actually saw one until 1978 when I began to care for ourmother when she became ill. She asked me to sort her personal papers for herand I opened a box and there it was, her dog licence! ‘You can have that ifyou like’, she said, ‘your father didn’t agree with these papers, but I got onebecause I had friends who had them. They went to hotels and clubs and toother places, where other Aboriginal people couldn’t go, because they hadthese papers’.

That night at Toomelah was my very first meeting other than church.Although I didn’t understand much about it at the time, I think I wasprompted from there. Anyway, I can remember us all sneaking back homeagain, and those two old ladies who lived next door to us, they came over toGran’s and said, ‘Well, we got away with it, eh? I don’t think anybody gonnaget in trouble over it’. Nothing ever happened over it, but they were stillanxious.

I look back now and say that at Toomelah I was introduced to school—a place of learning or one could say a whole world of yearning . . . but I didn’tlearn so much in school. Most of my education came from the street!

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 38

Page 57: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

3Learning From the Street, 1940s

Isabel and Joe had remained at Toomelah for around three years, and Isabel remem-bers doing ‘first and second grade’ at school there. That was all the formal schoolingshe ever got. Her older brother, Lindsay, had remained with her father Mick, workingon local stations. Joe later taught Lindsay how to read. The economy improved withthe onset of the Second World War, making it easier for Aboriginal people to regainthe jobs they had filled in the sheep and agricultural industries before the Depression.Many Aboriginal families felt confident enough in the improved economic climate totake their families away from the missions into which they’d been forced by the combi-nation of economic depression, school segregations and Board pursuit.

Mick Flick gained a permanent job managing a property called Longswamp,10 miles out of Collarenebri on the Mungindi Road, and brought his family awayfrom Toomelah around 1942. The family spent a lot of time in Collarenebri and in1946 Mick leased a block of land on the northern edge of town, at the beginning ofthe Mungindi Road which passed the ‘Old Camp’ a mile or so further along. Mickcontinued to work on Longswamp, coming in at weekends, while Celia and thefamily lived in town on what they called, from then on, ‘the Block’.

Isabel returned to learn a new view of Collarenebri, as she negotiated adoles-cence, her first jobs and relationships and learnt ‘from the street’ how the townworked.

Once we could read and write, then it was time to come back to Mum andDad and Collarenebri. Dad did a bit of everything. He was a shearer and afencer and he managed properties like one at Longswamp. It used to be


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 39

Page 58: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

owned by a fellow called Arthur Brown, who had two properties, Wirrabillaand Longswamp, and Dad worked on both of them.

Lindsay had always been with Dad—because they worked, you see. Theboys started working when they were 12. Mum was back at Longswamp withmy father then at the station and we lived a while there in a house. And whenwe used to come into town, Dad used to bring extra sheep in and give a bit ofmeat here and there. And that was always the way with all of the workers, allthe fellas that used to do work on properties, they always used to bring in extrameat and big tins of fat and stuff like that, and share it right around, it was areal sharing system that we had. And if one lot missed out, well, there’d bealways someone to make sure that that sharing was happening evenly acrossthe uptown—or the top camp and the middle camp and the bottom camp.

When we were in town, the cops would come round and notice us, thenthey’d be wanting to know who we were staying with . . . They’d ask: ‘Andwhere’s your mother staying? Does she stop out in the bush or in the camp?’you know, and then Mum would always say: ‘We’ve just come in for an houror so’. But when they came back again, that would have been a long hour, youknow? It might be in the afternoon or something like that, because Dad usedto still get grog even though they weren’t supposed to have grog. And some-times we wouldn’t go back until late to Longswamp. But one of them littlearmy jeeps’d be coming to check us out, just like they checked everyone out.

Dad got the Block about 1945—just after the war. He was working onLongswamp and so he could get a pastoral lease on that piece of land. He putup his name into the ballot for a soldier resettlement block, but he didn’t everhear back. That’s one of the ways he started to educate us. And I suppose itwas a way of helping me to become politically aware of what was happeningto Aboriginal people, because he said, ‘You take me, for instance, every yearI put my name up to be balloted for land. And I follow it up. I try to question:“Was my name submitted? Was my name put in, or not?” and I can never findout whether my name was ever put in to the draw’. He had very strongfeelings that it never was. And he felt that it was very unlikely that anyAboriginal people’s names were put in, anyhow.

I think it was local RSL officials who selected the names to go in andmaybe go on to regional, but there wasn’t much information. And he was aman that asked a lot of questions in that area. But there was very little indi-cation that other Aboriginal people had been successful. So yeah, he had verystrong feelings that they were never submitted anyhow.

‘The Block’ was an area of around two acres, situated on the northern townboundary, upstream and across the road from the hospital, and on the same side ofthe river as the ‘old camp’. It had a narrow edge abutting the hospital grounds and

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 40

Page 59: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

continued back and down to the river, with a gully running across it. Isabel’syounger sisters Clare and Rosie and her brother Jimmy were now of school age.Mick built a tin house on the centre of the Block like those on the Old Camp. Flat-tened kerosine tins for walls and sheets of corrugated iron for roofing were nailed toa strong, large bush timber frame to build a flexible structure which could accom-modate their growing family and occasional visitors. Mick’s was the only tin houseon the Block or on the camp which was built up on a platform, with a raised woodenfloor covered in lino for the main sleeping rooms and a lower, dirt floor swept smoothfor the kitchen. There was a rainwater tank built into an alcove in the side of thehouse, accessed through a little door, but often the family still needed to cart waterfrom the river by bucket, windlass and pulley until the 1960s.

While Isabel was away in Toomelah, the struggle to have Aboriginal childrenadmitted to the public school in Collarenebri had continued. Sustained pressurefrom Aboriginal people and supporters led to a decision to allow Aboriginal childreninto the school in February 1941. This was to be the first trial of the new StateGovernment policy of assimilation. But white parents immediately objected,‘striking’ by removing their own children from the school. Within a fortnight, theEducation Department had backed down, offering Aboriginal children only an‘Annex’ school, a makeshift classroom up on the stage of the School of Arts nextdoor. The children and teacher were not allowed to use the piano and had no accessto the tea room, and had to haul the long, heavy form seating up onto the stage eachmorning to be their seats and desks and then put them away again every afternoon.After continued demands, and in the face of the obvious silliness of the situation,the Aboriginal children were finally allowed, family by family, into the public schoolin the mid-1940s and it was formally declared integrated in 1947.1

Rosie (Weatherall) Flick, who had taught the correspondence lessons under thebough shade, related the sequence of events, and to her those brief days in the ‘real’school in 1941 were so fleeting that she didn’t even mention them:

Rosie: So we were petitioning the public school for a while, at the sametime as we were under the bough shed. Even going down to Armidale,that was their head office for Education, you know, we went down fortwo or three meetings in 1939 and 1940 to see if we could get into theschool—that’s what they was fighting for . . . And any rate, they decidedthen to teach them in the Town Hall,2 they could go into the Town Hallthen, you see. So we’d had to petition even to get that Annex, me andthis old minister and the policeman. There was never any meetings inCollarenebri itself, they used to take it all to Armidale, see, that was theEducation Department’s head office, and that’s where it all had to godown there. The policeman was always sort of on our side, even whenwe’d go to the meeting; but there was a lot of white families would go

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 41

Page 60: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

down and the things they used to say about the Murris! Used to make mesick! And there was white people going down to these meetings inArmidale all the time.

Isabel and her younger sister Rose (Flick) Fernando talked in 1994 about theirmemories of the Annex and public school in the 1940s:

Isabel: When we came back onto the Block at the end of the war, Mumstarted to say: ‘Oh, Clare can go to school now . . . and Jimmy and Rose’,and someone said: ‘Oh, Isabel should have gone back to school’, and Isaid: ‘Oh, no, I’m too old for that’. I was feeling really cocky then, I wasout of that. I didn’t want any part of it.

So Doreen [Weatherall] and Clare went into the Annex, and thenRose and Jimmy. Oh, yes. Oh, they were the third family to get in, weweren’t so fair, you see? So, they took the fairest kids in and then thesecond fairest lot. And when it was our turn, these poor kids, once theygot them into the school the terrible fear of going every day. Jimmy andClare was so miserable. They cried about how they didn’t want to go toschool and . . . ‘They call me black . . .’ and all this. Jimmy came homeevery day bashed up because somebody called him black.

Dad used to say: ‘Hey, listen, you are black, you know, you’re a blackfella. What do you want to be a white fella? How are you going to dothat?’ And he’d say: ‘You’ve got to be proud you’re black. I don’t care.Look, I go out and I earn my living and nobody else buys my tucker, I buymy own . . . So, get it in your head, you are black and you are entitled togo to that school. And they’re not going to stop you, just keep going’. Hewas starting to really get it into us that we’ve got to be working towardsbeing proud of ourselves, you know.

Rose: And he used to say too: ‘You won’t beat a white man by fighting. . . You’ve got to be just as good or you’ve got to be a bit better’.

Isabel: If somebody said: ‘He’s good that white fella’. You’ve got to be abit better than him. You’ve got to make sure you . . . you can’t step outof line but he can, see.

Rose: And that used to frighten me that, because I didn’t know what ‘abit better’ meant. I do now . . . ‘a bit better’!!!

Isabel: ‘Look, as long as you don’t get into trouble, Jimmy’, Dad wouldsay. ‘Look, Rosie don’t get into trouble, Jimmy, Clare don’t get into

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 42

Page 61: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

trouble . . .’ But our little Clare used to be hiding down the side of thehouse, she wouldn’t talk to Mum and Dad . . . When she and Rose andJimmy used to get me on my own they’d tell me what was happening atschool, you know, especially when they went into the white school. Theywas all right while they were in the little Annex but when they shiftedthem over to the other school . . .

Rose: The Annex used to be the old Town Hall, and then there was abig fence and that was the school next door, see.

Isabel: That’s when the colour of the skin counted then. Because if yourskin was fair you was over there in the real school, and they used to lookat our hands to see if they were clean underneath the nails and clean handsand behind your ears, and check with a ruler for munis. Every one of thekids would be standing up to attention so stiffly . . . it was just a ritual . . .

Rose: . . . yes they’d have to scrub up before they go to school and theyhad tight little curls and everything.

Isabel: Yes, but I won’t ever forget that show of hands . . . And when Jimmy went into big school, the headmaster used to be

up there looking for Dad all the time and Mum would always say: ‘I don’tknow nothing. I don’t have nothing to do with that’—that’s how Mumused to handle it. Dad was out on Longswamp, but she said he was theonly one that had something to do with it. And so he said: ‘Oh, I cannever catch him’.

But anyway, when he did catch up with Dad one weekend, he said:‘Look, I don’t know what you’re going to do with this boy. But he’s got tostop taking knives to school. Where does he get the money from?’ . . . AndDad said: ‘I give him money. He carts the wood and does things for me andI give him money. That’s his own money’. And he said: ‘Well, look everytime you give him money he buys a knife. Every Monday morning I haveto take the knife off him because he’s going to stab someone because theycall him black’. And Dad says: ‘Oh, well, I’ll have a talk to him’ . . . Andhe’d say: ‘Now, you’re not going to solve it, you’re not going to fix thesefellas up by putting a knife in them; you’re going to make it worse . . . makeit worse on all of us’. But I don’t think it ever sunk in with Jimmy. Hefought . . . whole time he was in school he fought his way all the time.

Rose: He used to hide. He’d go to school through the gate with me andthen hide and he’d still be at the gate coming home. Anyway, this letter

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 43

Page 62: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

came in the mail and Dad said: ‘Read this to me’, and I read it to him . . .‘14–15 days absent from school’. Old Dad said to me: ‘What’s that mean?’and I said: ‘Well, he hasn’t been going to school’. And he said: ‘But youwere telling me he is’ . . . ‘Yes, Dad he is going to school.’ So he said: ‘Well,watch him’.

Now every time this fella used to go to school we’d go through thegate together, so this day I went through the gate and I went and hidunderneath the big school . . . My little brother took off around to thepepper tree. That’s where he used to hide, in the pepper tree. And he’dsit there all day and then at three o’clock . . . three-thirty he was standingat the gate waiting.

Isabel: But, I used to feel so cocky, you know, when they used to talkabout how bad it was . . . Clare used to say, ‘Oh, I hate it. I hate thatschool’. I don’t see how they could’ve possibly learnt anything whenthey’re sitting there and all they’re thinking about, you know, they’regoing to fight this bloke when they get out of the class and . . . I thinkthat was always in their mind. So they didn’t learn that much. But Roseis the one to tell you about the milk . . . the lumpy milk. It was a cheapersort of milk that the black kids used to get.

Rose: Yeah, when we’d go to the Annex we used to make powderedmilk—mix it up with cold water into a thick paste, see. Two little kidsused to have to go with a bit of water, and we never had no glasses . . . thetin with a little handle and that’s how they used to make the milk for uskids over there. The milk for the white kids was fresh milk and it used tocome in the big silver canisters, but we used to have the powdered milk.And as little kids we were licking our lips, and the big girls used to give usa lick of the spoon. Sometimes the kids used to say: ‘I like my milk lumpy’,so whoever was making that milk that day would make it lumpy becausehis little sister or his little brother liked it lumpy. Those are the things wehad control over, they were just . . . just the making of the milk, you know.

There was a man with some kids who used to come over for a danceand they were trying to get the white kids to look at us when we were inthe Annex. So they’d march all them little white kids in for a dancinglesson. And before all the white kids came in all the class was the stage,see, so we used to push our desks out of sight, because the music was there. . . the piano had to be pulled out . . . and the white kids were lined upthere, and they used to say to them: ‘Okay, now, they won’t bite, they won’tbite, pick a partner now. Come on they’re just . . . come on now . . . ’, and I remember one kid saying: ‘But they smell . . . they might smell’, and

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 44

Page 63: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

the teacher said: ‘Oh, come on then, here, you can dance with so and so’,so she gave him a white partner so as not to upset him.

In the end all us little Murris turned around and we danced witheach other . . . we wouldn’t dance with the others. But those little thingsused to happen quite a lot. Like we used to get the pastels and mainlythey used to bring over the boxes that were broken in half. Then one day,I remember, the first time I was using the full pastel . . . because I wasused to the stubs . . . All of a sudden these white boys brought over thesebig cartons . . . they were full!

Isabel: Yeah, you know . . . and it still goes on.

Rose: Then there was things like this Freddy with those drawings . . .They said to the class—this was in the Annex times, eh—they said:‘Now, boys and girls, I want you to draw what you’ve got in your kitchen. . . your tables and chairs and cupboards and things like that’, and,anyway, Freddy draws these four little round things and this little squarething, and near the square things there’s two more little round things . . .and then he drew another little cupboard and . . . the teacher said: ‘Oh,what’s all these circles, Fred?’

And he said: ‘That’s our tables and chairs. That’s our chairs, Sir . . .All these fellas haven’t got chairs, they only just drew them like chairs.They haven’t got chairs’, he said, ‘they’ve only got drums for their chairs. . . like us, that’s all we’ve got. And see them . . . these round thingshere, we’ve just got one of them and we’ve got the big board across it likethat for a table, and Mum puts a tablecloth on it . . . and all these folks,they’re only telling you that, Sir’.

And these kids are all saying, ‘Freddy, shut up . . . Freddy . . . ’ Ialways remember that. They all waited on him after school, see, and ohthey bashed him up then, and then the parents said: ‘I wonder why themkids all got into Freddy for?’ and . . . ‘Oh, Freddy must’ve got cheeky orsomething’, everybody is trying to figure it out, you know. And then hehad to say why, and he said: ‘Well, I only just told the teacher the truth,they only had old drums for their chairs . . . ’

Isabel might have been cocky at escaping the distress her younger sisters and brotherwere feeling at the school, but she hadn’t forgotten her own intense desire to learn.And she hadn’t forgotten the humiliations she had been forced to go through to gether little bit of schooling. She recognised in her sister Rose the same fierce desires.When Rose started at the ‘big’ school on the other side of the fence, Isabel gave hera present which meant more to Rose than any other. Rose remembered in 2002:

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 45

Page 64: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Rose: When Isabel came back from a job, she always used to buy megifts, her and Clara. When Clara had her first job, she bought me a littlecup and saucer, I never seen porcelain so fine, you know we’d always hadtin pints. And then Clara opens this little box for me. She was workingat Kerrigans, and she’d bought me this beautiful little china piece.

Then when Isabel bought her parcel over, it was a big parcelwrapped up in brown paper and tied up with string. I couldn’t get thepaper and string off this thing, and I remember getting the butcher’sknife and Dad saying, ‘Not that knife, that’s my good knife!’ So I had togo and get another knife to undo this string. And I opened it, eh. And itwas what I always wanted. ’Cause I was ngarragaa.3 Only had sandshoes,and Dad used to put the Vulcanised patching on them to keep themgoing. I had sandshoes, no socks, and Dad used to get the ribbons fromthe cemetery for our hair. And I always wanted a navy tunic and blackshoes and white socks.

And in this brown paper packet was my first serge uniform . . . forschool . . . my snow white blouse, my white socks, and my black shoes.And she bought that out of her pay. And when I opened that parcel, ohmate! I lifted my uniform up, ’cause it was a little bit long, and I lookedat it, and it was just what I wanted! ’Cause Nancy Lawlor had one!! Allthe waajiins4 had one! And now I had my first uniform!

And I remember I wanted to go and put it on right now. And Isabelsaid, ‘No you bandu5 yet! You gotta clean yourself up!’ So I went out, andI said, ‘Oh I gotta have a wash, I’m gonna put my uniform on, gonna putmy uniform on!’ She said, ‘Oh Charlie it’s hot!’ I said, ‘No, no no . . .’Anyway they poured the water on me, I had a wash, come back then, eh?My uniform was long, but I had white socks, black shoes. And shestanding at the door and she said, ‘Oh, that fit you lovely Sis! Nowremember the buckle of the belt’. It was a metal one. I thought it was thebest buckle out! She said, ‘You like it?’ ‘Oh mate’, I said, ‘I love it, I loveit!’ And then I said, ‘Don’t forget my birthday!’ ‘Don’t worry, I got thatpicked out’, she said.

’Cause I was just learning to read when I went from the black schoolover to the white school. And I’ll never forget it. When my birthdaycome it was the book, The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monserrat. That’s my firstbook. And to read it!

When I got it, I was so proud of it I took it to school, and the teachersaid, ‘You can’t read this, little girl, you can’t read this. You not up to themwords. You black kids just come over’. But I made a point of reading it. AndI’ll never forget who wrote it, ’cause in those days, when you read some-thing, you read every line, see. So The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monserrat.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 46

Page 65: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

My first book. When I read that one to Isabel, I read a couple ofpages and I said, ‘Look, I can read this now!’

She said, ‘You always mucking around with books and reading . . .I’ll get you another one!’

And I was about 11, 10 and 11 when I got those books, they wereabout that thick you know, and I read them! Those were the gifts Iremember most . . . That was my sister!

Dad’s and Mum’s relationship must have been pretty rocky all the way, Ireckon. Because she’d take off. She wouldn’t necessarily go to Gran’s becauseshe had groups of friends everywhere and she would go to some of them inDirranbandi and Lightning Ridge. Or she’d go into Boggabilla where she hadfriends who used to work on the railway and so she’d spend a lot of time withthem. The first time she really went away and left us, I thought he was goingto go after her and shoot her. He was really raging. And then apparently shewanted to take the kids, Jimmy, Rosie and Clare. And that’s when he used todrink a bit, he used to really get out to it.

Anyway, this welfare officer came up and said: ‘Well, looks like yourwife wants to take the kids’. That really put a spark into him. He said: ‘Wellwhat can I do?’ The welfare officer wasn’t real happy about it. He said: ‘You’vegot to be careful they don’t get sent away’. Then one of these old JP’s Dadused to work for come up one day and said: ‘Do you know, when you go tocourt, if you can say that you don’t drink, that you’ve given it up . . . Then,you know, you’ve got a bit of a case . . . And that I’m working with you andall that . . . But if you’re drinking’, he said, ‘we can’t help you at all’. ‘Oh,right’, Dad said. You know what? He never drank from there on.

We were all a bit older then, nearly grown up. And we were saying: ‘Ohgee, this won’t last’, because we’d be there to pick up the kids and everything.But he wanted to be independent and have the kids in the place with him.So he didn’t drink again. And then none of the younger kids wanted to gowith Mum when she would take off and go. As they got older he’d say: ‘Ohwell, they’re big enough to know what they want to do now’. But they’d neverwant to go, you know.

And after he got over the anger part of it, he started to say to us: ‘Well,look, I’ve made up my mind about everything, you know. The Old Girl’sgoing to come back. She’ll come back. And she’ll come and go for the restof the time. Because I want her to come back and be with the kids whenshe wants to be. It’s no good her being here if she wants to row and fightand kick up. So the best way to do that . . . because you’ve only got onemother, you must realise, when she walks in the door, we’re all out of it,she’s the boss’.

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 47

Page 66: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And that’s the way it went. Soon as she’d come home, he’d pack up andgo. And we got to the stage where we could joke with him about it, you know.He’d say: ‘Oh well, I’d better be packing my swag tonight’. And we’d say:‘Why do you have to go out for, Dad? You don’t have to run away when Mumcomes home’. ‘I think it’s better that way’. But he never did stay . . . veryseldom, if he came in and she was home, you know he’d put his bed out onthe flat and he’d just have a night there or something, with the kids, becausehe wanted to be with the kids all the time. And then, after a while everybodygot pretty used to it, you know, because she still used to go crook on him, asif she owned him and everything.

She was a funny old woman. But I think about her now, you know. I usedto think she was very nasty to me because she couldn’t understand that meand Dad got on really well. I think she was jealous of that fact. But whenI think about it, she must have had a hard time after that tragedy up inBungunya when her father got shot and then most of her family got sent rightaway. And then she wasn’t allowed to visit them. My mother lost her familyand she had very little contact with the rest of her sisters and their children.So that was a whole lifetime wiped out. We’ve got one aunty that’s living nowin Cherbourg, which is where she was sent to. And she’s got a big family. Andthere’s big families on our mother’s side that we don’t even know, you know,and we’ll probably never get to meet because of our financial set-up.

They wanted her to go up a couple of times, but she wasn’t allowed to goonto the mission at Cherbourg. So, only time she met up with them was ifthere was a funeral and there was only two occasions that I can remember,where they went home for a funeral. So she must indeed have had a hard timecoping with all that. When she married Dad she was only 16, but they had toput her age up. I think it saved her from getting sent away as well. And, ofcourse, Dad was older, he’d gone over to the war and come back. So she musthave had a hard time. Then the tragedy of losing our young sister [Ceatrice]up at Toomelah really took its toll on Mum after that. So I’ve pieced all thesethings together in my mind, you know, years after.

And one of the things I remember Dad saying to me one day was: ‘Anybody’smade up of all kinds of things—blood and bones and muscle and feelings. Youget all kinds of feelings’. He was trying to tell me about boys . . . but he didn’tknow how to get around it.

Mum had gone then and he was starting to worry about dealing with thegirls. And he said: ‘It’s like, when you’re going to a funeral, it’s just a sadfeeling. You’re sad, so you don’t bust out laughing. If you have to you get outsomewhere where everybody is happy. You’re like an old wet bag if you’resitting around being sad. It’s the same thing, he said, with a man and a

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 48

Page 67: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

woman. That’s a different feeling altogether. And if you’re around with yourmob, well that’s okay, you’re safe, you’re right. But when you’re only twothat’s different altogether, you’re not safe then. So you’ve got to watch whatyou’re doing. You’re right if there’s a mob of people—somebody there canhelp you, see. And you can swap places with them or something like that, youcan get them to take you home or whatever. But if there’s only two of you,you’ve got to watch your feelings’.

And I never thought much about it, because it was a very awkwardmoment for me. I wanted to get out of that to do something else and talkabout something else. Because I was thinking about blokes at that time. Andsure enough, I’d think: ‘You’re right, you have to control it. And when you’reout there on your own, it is a totally different feeling’.

Oh, I remember I used to go and do something else—put the washing outor something, which I wasn’t really interested in either. But what a wonder-ful way for him to have a go at it. And I think that’s one of the reasons whyI did my best to tell my kids early. Because I guess I remember those moments,and even when I first got my periods. And I said to Mum: ‘Why didn’t youtell us?’ A lot of it is terrible I reckon. I thought I was going to bleed to death.She said: ‘Oh well, I didn’t know what to say. You probably wouldn’t havetaken any notice of me if I told you what you had to do’.

We were lucky we could live on the Block together like that. There’s anothertime I remember Dad could see we were having more fights with one of thebrothers as we were growing up, and I suppose we were in our teens then. Andoh, we’d have a lot of rows. Dad told us: ‘One of the things you’ve got to learnis that you’ve got to live together first. If you can’t live with each other you’vegot no chance of living with other people’.

And there was one day when my brother and I had a fight and I took offand I stayed with Granny Fanny up at the reserve. Dad didn’t worry becauseI was with her, and he knew when I decided to come home I’d come home.But he said: ‘Oh you can’t just run away. You’ve got to live with him. Take nonotice of him. He’s not easy to live with. But none of us are . . . look at us,we’re all different people. You’ve got to get to understand him’.

I’ve often said to Clare, you know, Dad was very wise in making us getused to each other, learning how to live with each other. And I think I try todo that with my grandkids too, you know. But I haven’t been able to havethat kind of relationship again because we’re all separated and living indifferent places.

We weren’t allowed to hang around the older people much when theywere talking before we went to Toomelah. So, there we missed out onlearning a lot of things, if we wasn’t such cheeky little kids as to be listening

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 49

Page 68: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

and things like that, and we didn’t even as to be dare do that! But you couldsee the system in the black groups—the older men making sure that a fightwas settled once and for all the following day. There was control among thecommunity and if those old men rejected someone, that community had toreject that person, it was really there.

But it was hard to learn about your meat6 and things. When I was later inmy teens I started to think, ‘Oh, we’re going to lose everything if we don’t startto find out some of it’. So I asked a very learned old man at Collarenebri,I said, ‘Why? Why the different meats?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s always sup-posed to be one animal that can’t hurt the other animal’, and so in most casesthese marriages worked out right. And he gave me three examples where hesaid people I knew were the wrong meat for each other; and he said, ‘It’llbecome violent’, and it did, in the three marriages. And one was his daughter—his daughter was married to the wrong meat—and he said, ‘You look at . . . soand so, they’re the right meat’. And they were such a close couple, the rela-tionship was so close and it seemed like so much understanding in it.

I was about 20 when I started to try to learn about all this, and I’m notreally clear on it, but I think I’m a sand goanna. That’s called a mangankali. Iasked this older fellow because I wanted to try and learn the language and hecould speak 12 different tongues. And when he started to learn me, he said,‘Well, the only way we can start is . . . I can see that I have to mix the twoclosest languages which is Gamilaraay and Yuwalaraay’. I never got to speakit all, but he taught me a lot of words and I picked up more as I went along.

Mum and Dad expected us to get work when we were old enough. And oneof the conditions for us girls—well, you could say one of the luxuries that wehad—was the wireless at home. We could—if we were working—just turn thewireless on whenever we liked. But if we weren’t working after the threeweeks, then we had to get permission to use that wireless. But the brotherswere different. They had three weeks to find a job or get out. And that wasit. And they knew that Dad didn’t say things and then not carry it out.

Wages at that time for me were about ten bob a week. But I didn’t haveto buy my own clothes, my Dad did that. They were just learning me tobecome independent and know what it felt like to really work for my ownliving.

So my first job I was about 15 and Dad’s boss had made arrangementswith this other station owner down near Rowena. And so—they were nicepeople—but after I was out there a while I used to get really lonely at nightand want to come back home.

It was hard, but it was funny too in those first jobs. Sometimes I think ofthe flutter in my chest when she said: ‘Put the shirt on the horse, Isabel’. And

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 50

Page 69: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

I thought: ‘No, she didn’t say that’. But the most important thing was thatDad had said ‘Whatever that woman tells you, you do it. You’ve got to keepthat job, you know, if you’re going to be independent you’ve got to put upwith a lot’. And that’s the thing that went through my mind straight away.And that shirt was real nice and white and you know . . . oh God, and shesaid again: ‘Would you put this shirt on the horse, Isabel’.

And I said: ‘Yes. Yes, Mrs Y . . . ’ And then I thought: ‘Oh, so she did sayput it on the horse’. And then I looked out and I could see this biggestdraught horse you ever saw grazing along outside the verandah. So I’mwalking towards this big horse and she must’ve woke up just as I was about tokick the door open. I had the shirt held up in front of me and she must’verealised what I was going to do. And when she said: ‘Oh Isabel, I’ll take that. . . I’ll put that on the horse and you watch the milk. I’ve put some milk onthe stove and just make sure it don’t boil over, dear’. Oh I was glad to get ridof the shirt because my heart was pumping! And I thought ‘No I don’t carewhat happens to the milk. I want to watch you put this on the horse!’ Shewalked over and put it on this frame . . . oh God, and I was feeling so sick.You wouldn’t realise how you can feel so sick over something like that, eh?

But I’ll never forget that, when Dad said: ‘No matter what that womantells you to do, you’ve got to do it because she’s a good woman, she’s a nicewoman. And she wouldn’t tell you to do something that you shouldn’t orthat’s going to be too hard for you’. And when she pointed at that bloodyshirt and ‘put it on the horse’, I was thinking: ‘That’s the first and foremostthing: I must do whatever she says!’

A lot of people had those same sort of experiences in their first jobs.There was an old friend of mine in Dubbo who had her boss ask her: ‘We’llhave potatoes in their jackets tonight. You can do the potatoes can you? Andwe’ll just have that corned meat’. And she said: ‘Oh righto’. And the bosssaid: ‘You’ll find everything out on the verandah there, dear’. So little dearwalks out there and here’s the sewing machine and all the cotton and ma-terials and scissors and right near it is the little frame with the little potatoesin it. So she’s thinking: ‘Oh gee, I suppose I can . . .’ All the style was littlebolero things then, and she told me: ‘So I started cutting these little bolerosout, and I saw all the pins there and I thought: “I’ll pin them on like that”and so they didn’t look too bad’. So she had about six or eight done and theboss comes back after a while and she says: ‘Oh you didn’t put the potatoeson then?’

And she said: ‘Oh Missus, I’ve only got a few of these jackets finished,you know’. And she said: ‘What do you mean?’ And she said: ‘Well, I onlyjust got . . . look, you have a look’. And when this woman came and had alook she started laughing. And she told me years later: ‘I’m feeling so sick

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 51

Page 70: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

inside, I’m thinking I don’t know whether to laugh or cry’. She didn’t knowwhat to do. And she said this woman kept laughing. And she said: ‘I endedup crying’. And she said: ‘Oh look, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have laughed dear,I should know that you don’t know what I’m talking about, eh?’ ‘Oh, I knowwhat you’re talking about’. She said: ‘No, when you cook the potatoes youshould . . .’ she started explaining it.

And old Ellen Draper from Moree was telling me about the horse too,when I was telling her about what happened to me. She said she had the samesort of thing, but she wanted to ask questions. Her boss said. ‘Just put this onthe horse in the kitchen, dear’. And Ellen said: ‘No, you wouldn’t have ahorse in the kitchen’. She said: ‘Yes, we have got our horse in the kitchen’.Nobody ever had a horse in the kitchen! And she said it took this woman awhile to wake up when she said: ‘But I’m talking about the clothes horsenow’. And Ellen said: ‘Well, look you’ve got me beat. I don’t know what aclothes horse is!’ You know, she was going to stick up there for herself. Whata way to learn things, eh?

I must’ve been about 14 or 15 then, this was just after Dad was able to goand get us from Toomelah. And this is the same place where Clare, my sisterand her brother-in-law, Freddy, were working there later on. He was learningto be a stockman and she was the housemaid. He said: ‘Hey Sis, quick! OldBoss said bring the gun from behind the Kelvinator; what’s the Kelvinator?’She said: ‘I don’t know, don’t ask me Freddy’. He said: ‘Oh you must know.Go and ask the waajiin’. She said: ‘No, I’m not going to ask the waajin’. Andthey looked at the refrigerator door and it said K-e-l . . . He said: ‘K-e-l . . .this might be it, eh’. He looked behind the fridge and there’s the gun.

And there’s lots of other stories about girls my age who had these sorts ofthings happen. This other girl, she was from Bre—she was one of the goodniggers—she said she was working at the hotel and she said this bloke camein while she was cleaning the room out or putting new towels in or some-thing. He had the big dish, but he didn’t have the big jug, see. He said:‘Where’s the pitcher?’ And she said: ‘Oh the pictures were last night, we onlyhave it every Wednesday’. And she said: ‘And when he looked at me he said:“Oh no, I don’t mean the picture show, I mean the jug, you know the big jugthat . . . ?” ‘Oh yeah’, she said . . . Well, she told me, ‘When I went outside Iwas thinking to myself I don’t really want to take this back up. I feel so bad’.But oh dear all the wonderful ways you learn . . . I suppose when you think ofit, we just imagine how our other old people before us got to know . . .anything really. And they became good stockmen and everything, eh?

But some of the experiences weren’t funny. There’s a real sad one that’swhat happened to my aunty. And she was only 13. She had to go out to astation, and the boss where she went out to said to her: ‘Now you’re going down

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 52

Page 71: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

to the stockmen’s quarters tonight, you have to clean up down there’. Shedidn’t say nothing, because she was a bit frightened. But when she gets downthere the stockman was eyeing her off, see. And he’s saying: ‘They said you was18’. ‘I’m only 13’, she said. And he said: ‘Well, they told me you was 18’.

See, they must’ve made arrangements for her to sleep with him. And . . .‘Oh no, I’m not 18, I’m only 13. And I’m just turning 13’. And the poor oldthing, she was telling me you know, that went on for a long time. And everynow and again he’d walk in and he’d say: ‘You say you’re 13?’ ‘Yes, I’m only13. I won’t be 13 till . . .’ she was trying to tell him when she was going tobe 13. And he said: ‘Oh all right’. So, as the night went on, he just said: ‘Well,you’ll just have to sleep there. We’ll tell them a story in the morning’. Andshe was terrified. She said she was terrified all night.

And then next morning he said: ‘Just don’t say nothing when you goback up there. You just don’t say nothing’. When I think back, at least he didcare enough not to touch her. But that’s the kind of thing that did happen.You’d see a lot of those women . . . we used to see them at Toomelah . . .every time they’d come back they’d have a baby . . . a white baby, it wasterrible, eh? One poor woman, they used to send her back to the same placeall the time.

As Isabel moved between a series of jobs and her home in Collarenebri, shesustained close and enduring relationships with the young people she had grown upwith, particularly with Ted Thorne. Work and circumstances separated them,however, and Isabel was involved for some time with a young man from just overthe Queensland border. She became pregnant to him when she was 20. Her son Benwas born in 1949, into a supportive extended family in which his grandfather Mickplayed a strong role as carer and mentor.

Isabel’s supported position within her family and the wider Murri communitywas very different from her sense of isolation from the surrounding white popula-tion. In her late adolescence and early adulthood, Isabel became increasingly awareof the hostility directed both at herself as an Aboriginal woman and single motherand at her community. Her father became more open about his frustrations with thetown and Isabel began to experience personally the persistent, demoralising stings ofeveryday racism.

Dad was very careful about the fact that he was going to tell us about the warin his own time. And we grew up thinking what a great thing it was that hewas a returned serviceman. Most Aboriginal people did think that way. ButI remember I was about 18 when he finally said, ‘Oh I think we’ll talk aboutthat now. It wasn’t a great thing that I went to the war. When we look at oursituation today, you say what rights did I have, really, to go to the war. It’s not

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 53

Page 72: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

really my country. Politicians were the ones that should have been the onesfighting those wars’. And then he said ‘War is all about people killing eachother. I can tell you, it’s not . . . it’s not a good feeling to know that you canjust move and be stone dead, you know. Or you could be wounded and . . .’You know, he’s witnessed people lying and dying at his feet. But it was at thatage we were told, we weren’t told when we were younger. Then we started tothink more about the fact that he was a returned serviceman.

He was a good worker, and he was never a man to half-do a job. And soDad was never short of work and he was respected in that area. But I thinkhe was looked upon as a bit of a militant, because he asked a lot of questionsand in that time, you didn’t need to ask too many questions before you’d bebranded as someone with a militant attitude. I started to get the feeling thatwhite people just thought he was one of those ‘know-all niggers’. And Istarted to become aware of some of the things he’d been saying. When I was18, I started to become quite conscious of what was happening around us.And I think it was through some of the things he’d point out to me.

I remember when the first RSL club was built in Collarenebri in 1947.Dad was very keen to become a member. I think he thought, ‘Once I becomea member, I’ll be able to have my say and be involved more, and . . .’ Andthen one of the officials of the club said to him, ‘Look, we don’t want tosound as if we don’t, you know, go for you blacks, but we can’t serve you inthe bar. It’d be best if we passed it out the window to you’.

And Dad said, ‘Well you know what you can do with your club. And yourmembership. ’Cause I won’t pay to be treated like that’. He tried to get hismoney back, and there was a few that tried to convince him that that wasonly for a little while, until people got used to Aboriginal people beingaround the club. He thought they were thinking to themselves, ‘Well, we’llsee how you blokes go on, before we can let you come inside the club’.

At times we felt embarrassed by some of the things Dad’d say. You know,‘Oh they don’t treat me like a bloody nigger altogether’, or something likethis, and we’d say, ‘Oh dear, here he goes again’. But it was all in the processof learning. I gained a lot by those kind of remarks that Dad used to come outwith. He’d say, ‘You take a look at how they treat us Aboriginals then. They’llgo around to your door and make sure you’re down there for the march, andmake a big thing out of it. But the next day, you know, those same peoplewouldn’t even bid you the time of day’.

We had a different understanding of him after that, about why he wasalways so close to us kids. And he’d always say, ‘If anyone tried to take mykids away, I’d rather die fighting for them, fighting to keep my kids, than justletting them go’. But even then we didn’t have a real understanding of whathe was talking about, until later in life, when we started to learn how they

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 54

Page 73: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

were just looking for any excuse to pick up these kids and take them away,just to groom them up and send them back into servant duties.

I was really finding it harder to ignore the rudeness we used to meet inthe street. We were going to a Slim Dusty show once when I was about 16and everybody turned up for that. And I had to walk down this row of peoplewho were already sitting, my seat was right at the end of the row so I had towalk all the way down there. I was with two other Aboriginal girls in front ofme. I noticed the same thing was happening to the other girls as to me—thisgroup of white people were holding their nose as we were walking past.I didn’t want to be thinking that was happening. I thought ‘Well, we can’t doanything about it’. I just don’t know how I was feeling about that at the time,but I was feeling pretty bad. I went back and I stood in front of those peopleand just looked at them and then I walked on again.

When I go home now I talk to those people and I never think of it. Veryseldom that comes into my mind. But at the time I felt really hurt about it.I never even mentioned it to the other girls who walked in front of me. Idon’t know why I didn’t, but I was always careful not to start any blues andI knew that that kind of stuff could start it. I don’t know, maybe I wasdestined to do it that way, as I find out now.

I remember, one day I went into the post office, I was probably in mytwenties then, and there were five or six other people who’d just been servedand they were standing around talking, and I walked in just before the doctordid, and the woman behind the counter said: ‘Oh doctor, yes, what can I dofor you?’ And he said: ‘Oh no. I’ve got plenty of time. Isabel was here beforeme . . . ’ ‘Oh yes, Isabel . . .’ and she came back to me then. But that was theonly time I ever heard someone do something about it.

That’s the same thing that happened when we were in segregation in thehospital—you heard people whispering about us, the nurses and the sisterswhispering about us. Saying it wasn’t good to have babies without beinglegally married and all that. Even if they were talking about one of the otherblacks it still hurt you. And you thought: they talk about all of us in the sameway. I suffered a lot of snide remarks from the sisters and nurses going throughthose things. I can still say, you know, ‘Hello . . . ’; they still talk to me nowand I can feel no hurt. But at the time it used to hurt like hell, you know? AsI got in control of it all, I started to think: ‘I don’t care what you think. That’sthe way we are’.

So many things like that happened in the hospital and in the streets, wealways got together and we stood around together because nobody elsewanted to talk to us. So we had our own little thing all the time.

We got to call that Johnson’s Corner in Walgett, ‘Crows’ Corner’ for thatsort of reason. I suppose everywhere we went we had a special place where

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 55

Page 74: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

everybody had to meet. We didn’t go down to Walgett very much, but Iremember when people came over to Colle they’d say: ‘We were onlystanding at Crows’ Corner and such-and-such happened today’. And we’dsay: ‘Where’s Crows’ Corner?’ ‘Oh, that’s where all us Murris meet. That’swhy they call it Crows’ Corner.’ Of course, when I went to Walgett then Icould see that it was Crows’ Corner. People didn’t feel so welcome in the restof the town. So that’d be as far as they’d go, or as far as they’d want to go.

A lot of people are very hurt about things and they will never talk tothose people again. Or they’ll continually whinge about it. But today when Igo home to Colle I see those same white people and they’re so different.They’ve changed over the years. It’s funny that. And I thought: ‘They had theproblem. I didn’t really’. And that’s why I keep saying all those things havemade me a stronger person, because without feeling really hurt about thatnow, I can think: ‘Oh well, it happened and that’s that’.

There were white people who cared about the situation and the racismtowards us, but they couldn’t do anything about it. I suppose in communitieslike that it’s best to not rock the boat. And that was one of the issues thatcould’ve put a lot of people offside. But any time we went to the Stallworthys,they always made us very welcome, we had to come inside and have a cup oftea. They had a truck and they used to do the mail run and the milk run andsome of their boys worked in the shops. They sold the milk and we’d go downand get our milk off them. But it didn’t matter what we went in there for. Wecouldn’t go around the back and come in—the old couple would say: ‘No, no,you don’t come in the back door at my place, you walk in the front door.I don’t give a bugger about anybody’. That’s how they were to us. When I lookback, I think they were really fair dinkum people then and they’ve alwaysremained that way. They did know that they could cop the backlash, but Idon’t think it ever mattered to that family. They didn’t really care about it.

We used to say: ‘We don’t like going down for the milk, Dad, becauseyou’ve got to go in, you’ve got to sit down, you’ve got to talk to Mrs Stall-worthy and sometimes Mr Stallworthy is there’. ‘Well, they’re nice people’,Dad would say, ‘they’re nice people. You don’t want to be ashamed of that. Ifthey’re nice to you, you be nice to them’. And that’s what used to happen—we’d have to go in and have a cup of tea and they’d ask us how we were, andif we wanted to talk to them we could. They let us know that we were verywelcome in their home. And that was the only place in town that I could saywe felt like that. Later on, I found out there were other people who cared likethat but they couldn’t come out openly and do anything about it, to me thatbalances it—even though it was a hard time.

One of the things I remember happened round about when the war wasjust finished. I was coming back from Tamworth and we had to change trains

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 56

Page 75: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

at Werris Creek. We had about two hours we had to wait. So I went across tothe railway café and sat down. I was sitting down there when these youngwhite fellas walked in, about four or five of them, some girls and a couple ofboys, and they said: ‘Oh, do you mind if we sit with you?’ I said: ‘No, no, Idon’t mind’ . . . but you know, this was unheard of. And then I’m thinking tomyself: ‘Oh they’ll probably watch me eating and all this’; I’m getting worriedabout things like that. And then this girl came and she’s taking the order.And she said: ‘Oh, look, I’m sorry . . . ’, when she come to me, ‘I’m sorry butwe don’t serve you people’.

And I just had this sick feeling! And one fella said: ‘I beg your pardon’,he said, ‘did I hear you right? You said you’re not going to serve this girl?’ Shesaid: ‘That’s right, look I don’t want any trouble’. So she goes in and shebrings the manager out. So the manager said: ‘Listen, if we don’t serve thosepeople that’s our business. And we don’t serve those people’.

I got up then and I walked out. And why I stood at the door and listened,I’ll never know. These white people said: ‘Oh, we just wanted to know’. Andthe manager said: ‘Well that’s the end of that’. So, they decided they’re goingto order up and they must have got their heads together and they orderedeverything. I could see them: two pots of this and two pots of that. Thenwhen they got the food then they’re still sitting there talking. And why I’mthere at the door, I’ll never know. Then they said to the waitress: ‘Oh, excuseme, can we see you a minute?’ She come across: ‘Yes what’s wrong?’

This bloke said, ‘We just decided, seeing that you can’t serve our friendout there, you can’t serve us. We don’t like this stuff, it’s not good enough’.She said: ‘What!’ He said: ‘It’s just not good enough’. And I’m thinking: ‘Ohmy God, I’m getting away from here’. The next minute the manager comesout. And he’s saying: ‘You’ll bloody well pay for it all, you’ll pay for it all right.And if we don’t want to serve those niggers, we don’t have to serve ’em!’ Andhe’s going on . . .

Well, I took off. Over the railway then. I’m thinking: ‘Oh my God, Dad’sgoing to say, “What you messing round with them white fellas for? What’reyou getting mixed up with that lot for?’’ ’ So I’m not worried about anythingelse, but what Dad’s going to say! And I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, Dad’s going tobe real cranky. Mum’s going to probably belt me . . . ’—because she did all thebelting see.

Anyhow, these blokes must have went up to the shop, then the girlscome along. They said: ‘Hey, mate’. They’re singing out to me. I’m thinking:‘Let me get right away from this, I wish the train would come’. Still I couldhear these fellas saying: ‘Oh she’s here somewhere. Her port is still there,yeah, she’s still here somewhere’. So, they found me . . . ‘Oh, there you are,mate! Oh, we’re gonna feed ya, the boys gone to get some stuff’. And I said:

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 57

Page 76: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

‘Oh no, no I’m not hungry anyhow’. Then the boys come back with this bigload, them big tank loaves of bread and butter and saveloys and camp pie.And anyway they’re saying: ‘Hey, come on love’, they say. And they were realhappy. All I’m thinking is: ‘Oh no, I can’t get mixed up with these whitefellas’. I was afraid the coppers were coming directly because they had a bigrow. I didn’t want to be in this.

And these fellas are saying: ‘Come on mate, come on. Now, look, Jesusbroke the bread and it was still good bread. So, come on, you can break yourown bread if you want to . . . come on’. And I said: ‘No, I’m not hungryreally . . .’ ‘Oh, come on you, yeah, come on we all hungry’. And he said: ‘Wecan’t help it if they don’t like us over there. We like ourselves better overhere’. And I said: ‘Yes, but I’m not hungry’ . . . He said: ‘Look here . . . ’,I looked, saveloys and everything, you know. And I said: ‘Oh, I’ll just have alittle bit then’ and I just had a little bit to shut them up. ‘That’s better’, theysaid.

Anyway, then I could hear the train come. Oh God, I’m looking aroundthe corner . . . and I’m saying: ‘Oh, I’m sure the police will come any minute’.And they said: ‘Look, if the police come, you don’t worry about it. You let usworry about that’ . . . But I’m still thinking what my Dad will say: ‘Yes, well,you got mixed up with those young people, see you can’t trust people likethat’. Going through all that.

Anyway, when the train come, then these blokes wrapped all this foodup together and they said: ‘Here mate, you take that now, you take that lotand we taking this lot’. And I said: ‘Well I’ll take it, but I’m not real hungry’.And when I got on the train, wasn’t I pleased to part with them!

And I was thinking: ‘Oh well, Dad’ll never know now’. And anyway afterI got down there . . . I realised they must have given me most of the tucker.I was sitting back and I was thinking: ‘Oh, I’m going to have a good feed now,anyhow’. But that was one of the worst things I ever had happen to me.Thinking about that incident, I realised many years later, that I was ashamedto mention it to anyone. I don’t know why, but it was something that I keptto myself, and it was only local! But I thought all the same there were somenice people in the society when all this was happening, because those youngpeople really went out of their way and made an issue out of it, and wentabout our business.

On Collymongle pastoral station, 20 kilometres outside of Colle on the Moree road,there was a unique and highly significant stand of 82 elaborately carved living treessurrounding a Gamilaraay ceremonial ground. Isabel had never been there becauseshe understood it to be a site associated with men’s initiation rituals and so it wasnot a place to which women could go freely. During the mid-1940s, some remote

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 58

Page 77: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

authority must have decided that these trees should be cut down and removed tomuseums. Most were transported to the Museum of South Australia, wherethey were accessioned in 1949, while some others were sent to the Museum ofQueensland and the Australian Museum in Sydney. Twelve remained standing onCollymongle, but soon after all but one of these were also cut down and removedto be garden ornaments in the lawn at the homestead. There they were wateredconstantly with the lawn and gradually developed moss and mould. When MickFlick first heard that the trees were going to be cut down and taken away, he triedto challenge their removal.

We heard that they was going to interfere with the trees out on Collymongle.Dad had often pointed to the area where they were and said ‘That’s one ofour biggest ceremonial grounds. That belongs to all us Murris out here’. Andhe said the story was that they used to come from all around, to hold theirceremonies there. Oh, that was a general knowledge, that we owned them.Regardless of who’s property they were on, they were ours. It’s just as if, whenthe land settlement was taking place, white people who then claimed thatland as theirs still allowed those ceremonies to continue. I think it’s reason-able to say that, that they allowed those ceremonies to continue there, andthat meant people could still know and respect that area. I think thathappened, right up until the time they took them away. And I don’t knowwhat the real reason was, that they had to be removed.

Dad was so upset and concerned, he tried to get some of the Aboriginalmen to go with him. But they still feared the backlash from lease holders andwhite farmers at that time. Dad came home and was getting ready to go outto Collymongle himself. We said: ‘So where are you going?’ And he said:‘Well I just went around trying to get the mob to come with me out here, butthey don’t seem to want to be in it. So I’m going out. I’m going out to watchthem. They’re cutting it down and taking it away, and it belongs to us, it’s ourstuff’.

And we thought: ‘Oh gee, we wonder what Dad’s going to do out there?’And so we were a bit concerned. But somehow too, we didn’t say: ‘Can we gowith you?’ He would’ve taken us if we’d said that. But he witnessed that. Andwhen he came back in, he was very sad about it, and he was saying: ‘Well, itjust shows you. The people just don’t care enough’. And I think he meanteverybody didn’t care enough about it. But even though the people didn’ttalk about it a lot, it did mean a lot to people. I think people didn’t talk aboutit because they lacked the confidence to come out openly and say that. Daddidn’t talk to us much for a couple of days. I don’t think he went around theold fellas at the camp anymore for a couple of weeks. And so it took him awhile to get back to accepting it.

Learning From the Street


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 59

Page 78: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

I never ever went to that spot. That was a men’s area. But I’ve encour-aged other young people to go there, and mainly men. I found that after thatthere was a lot of students went—male and female. I guess it’s all so impor-tant that that had to happen. Because it was more and more important forme. When they took the last 11 trees from there, and they put them in theCollymongle homestead garden just as ornaments, after the fact that Dad wasso concerned about the cutting down of those trees in the first place, it stuckin my mind.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 60

Page 79: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

4Building Pressures, 1950s

By 1950, Isabel’s focus had shifted from a teenager’s concerns to her adult role as amother and worker. She felt secure within a strong family network. Working mostlyon pastoral stations, Isabel preferred to work with her family, in the shearingcontracts her father organised. Her son Ben was taken under his grandfather’s wing,and spent his first years following his grandfather around at Longswamp and otherworkplaces.

The Flick family had expanded: Lindsay married Rosie Weatherall, who hadbeen the bough shade teacher, and Joe married Isobelle Walford. Both were fromAngledool families displaced in the 1936 move. The Weatherall family had movedto Collarenebri immediately, but the Walfords had spent some time in Brewarrinabefore coming to settle in Collarenebri. So the extended family network withinwhich Isabel lived was sustained by a number of active senior men and women, notonly Mick himself but Nanna Sylvia, Isobelle Walford’s mother. These older peopleeach took a role in caring for the younger family as well as the very elderly likeGranny Ada Woods, Nanna Sylvia’s mother.

Rosie and Lindsay’s first two sons Mick and Lindsay had been born beforeBen, then Joe and Isobelle’s first child Johnny was born not long after in Collarene-bri in 1950. This group of boy cousins and age mates grew up together betweenLongswamp and the Block, closely attached to Mick and to each other. Joe andIsobelle’s daughter Barbara was born in 1951, soon after Mick and Celia’s youngestchild, Lavinia [Lubby], and they grew up together as very close friends, as did thesucceeding sets of cousins. Barbara’s birth took place in Goondawindi, because Joeand Isobelle, like Isabel herself, were travelling in that area ‘looking for shed work’.


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 61

Page 80: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel’s experiences in the sheds were her introduction to unionism, as she saw thestrength of collective action as well as the bitterness of internal union conflicts.

The family centred around Dad really. I think the kids got a good mateshipgoing with Dad, none of the kids wanted to go with Mum when she’d takeoff. The youngest sister, Lubby—she was the boss in the house when hewasn’t there. And then she’d tell him what the boys were doing. Like ourbrother Jimmy and the grandkids, Micky and Ben, Johnny, they all livedwith Dad. And the mother and father had no control over that as theycome to that age, you know. The first seven years of Ben’s life . . . he wentout with Dad when he was three, I think, on the fence. And oh, it’s realhard . . . no trees around, just the plains. And it was hot. And I’d say toDad: ‘He shouldn’t be out there’. ‘Oh, he loves it out there’, he’d say, ‘heloves it out there’.

The other couple of kids used to go out too, Mick and John, and then inthe end we had a job to get the kids to go to school. When they’d come inthey’d be talking like men, you know, talking about different bosses thatcome down. And you’d swear that they were negotiating with the bosses andeverything.

I think Ben was seven when I first got him into school, because he usedto cry and play up to go with Dad. But Joe . . . Joe was a bit firmer, see, he’dsay to Dad: ‘No, no, you can’t do that. They’re my kids too’. And so we madeJohnny stay in town. And Johnny used to be really ticked-off about having tostay in town. He had a good relationship with all of us really, but he justwanted to be with Dad.

Dad did a few different types of work then, mainly at Longswamp. Butwhatever he did he was a union man, he wouldn’t miss getting his ticket andall that. The shearers were the strongest part of the union then, they used toforce the AWU. I remember those strikes where, you know, one lot of peoplecouldn’t ride in one taxi or another or in the same one! Otherwise they’d befighting in the street—I’ve seen that happen. In Colle and in St George. Wewere up in St George at the time . . . we all went up there looking for a bitof shed work and then, you know, there’d be a big blue break out there, overwho had the jobs and who didn’t have the jobs, over who was scabs and whowasn’t scabs. So we’d move on again. And so we went around to Bungunyahand that’s how Barbara was born at Goondiwindi early in 1951.

We kept moving around trying to get shed work—which is what theywanted—but everywhere we’d go there’d be a big blue over who was doingthe right thing, who was doing the wrong thing. There was some really badblues in Colle. And Dad used to say to me: ‘This is terrible. You’ve got theblack fellas even fighting one another’.1

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 62

Page 81: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And shearers were the fussiest workers I ever saw. I cooked for them andif you were a bit late with the smoko, that was a major drama. You didn’t haveto be half an hour late, just 10 minutes, because they’ve got to be back on theboard. And they’d let people know that they weren’t happy with it. And thesame thing with all the black fellas too, they’d say: ‘God, this bread is shit!’And any little thing at all, and some of the other shearers would say: ‘Oh, goon! When you go home you’re eating Johnny cakes, and rice!’ But I thinkthat was just the working pattern, you know, of the shearers. To complainabout the cook or anything! And if the boss was late coming down to kickthe engines off or something like that, that was another major drama. They’dkick up a big fuss about it. They’d be walking around as if they’re going to tearthe place down. And of course there was a feeling that the union could comein. So everybody had to be on guard about those things. The first thing theshearers would do when they go to the shed was, they’d go through and see iftheir shower was working or the taps was working. And they’d examineeverything, see the mattresses was right . . . you know? They wouldn’t have amattress with a tear in it, they’d turn it over and find out. But nowadays,there’s very little camp-out sheds, they’re all suburban sheds.

One of the things we worked out after a while was this. There was a bodyof shearers organised by this contractor called Grazcotts, and they used to goall over the country. And one day Dad was sitting down and he said: ‘Youknow, when people rang up and wanted to find out if they had any jobs going,they could have had a couple of sheds just around that town. But the contrac-tor’s tactic was, rather than do that, they’d send them to Tasmania or downto Victoria or up to Queensland. And that way, they’d get them as far awayfrom home as possible, so they wouldn’t just do a couple of days work andwalk off. And then they’d bring another lot of shearers in; Grazcotts wouldbring another lot of shearers to the area from where they’d just sent this mobto in Tasmania.

So that was one of the things Dad used to be always whingeing about.But they kept working pretty well mainly in the sheds. And that was the waythey had to do it ’cause Grazcotts was in charge of it. Sometimes they’d get ajob from up in Charleville and they’d be up there, they’d say: ‘Well it’s wayup in the scrub’. So they’d be up there for about six weeks or something likethat, depending. And there might’ve been a shed just out from home, andthose shearers would come from Victoria with Grazcotts. So that was Graz-cotts’ tactics. And I couldn’t understand it for a long time, and Dad used tobe always whingeing about it. But he was still packing his swag to go, youknow. And the brothers was the same.

I started to cook for the shearers when Dad started to get some contractsheds, and then all of us mob had jobs. He’d get the contract for the sheds, so

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 63

Page 82: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

he provided the shearers and the rouseabouts and the cooks. And he’d makesure they’d be nearly all blacks. The only time he’d pick up a white fella waswhen he couldn’t get a black fella. He had a good run there, and then hestarted getting sick, and he didn’t have anybody to take over. He had aboutseven sheds for seven years, you know, guaranteed for five years.

Most of the rouseabouts was Colle and Walgett Murris. Because he usedto always say the Moree mob get enough work up that way. So he’d go aroundand sit around the gambling schools and things like that. And pick upsomebody who might be drunk, and he’d say: ‘Come over and sober up’. Andtake them out and sober them up and get them going. He had a lot ofpatience like that, you know.

There’s not much work like that going now, only very odd sheds thatmight give them a week’s work and all that work is done by some of the NewZealanders that come over and the family friends. Family and friends, they domost of the shearing. And you would never have got a shearer to go out on aSaturday or a Sunday like they do now, that’d be just a no-no.

Even when working on local sheep properties, Isabel and her wider family spent muchof their time in Collarenebri, living on the Block but with close relations and friendsliving just along the river at the Old Camp. Conditions there were much the same asthose Isabel remembered from the 1930s. There was no water or washing facilitiesother than the river, and carrying water for drinking, cooking and washing was anarduous slog up the steep bank each day to the camps. Each family dug their own pittoilets and made their own cooking and washing arrangements with extensions to thetin houses they built scattered around the Old Camp area. Facilities and services on theBlock were little different from those of the camp. The young families there had builttheir own houses from flattened tins, scattered around the Block but oriented towardsMick’s house. These houses were built with big family kitchen areas with a fireplace andthen one or two smaller bedrooms on the side. Despite being only a couple of hundredmetres down the road from the hospital, the Block had no access to town services likepiped water or sewage connection and was clearly regarded by the local governmentauthorities as outside the town boundaries. Doreen Weatherall Hynch recalled thepleasures, but also the difficulties of living on the Old Camp in the 1950s:

Doreen: It was a lovely, lovely place to camp here, ’cause the kids had gotplenty to do here being close to the water. I grew up our kids here. I stayedwith Nanna Pearlie Mason over in her camp after I got married in the1950s. I used to be able to walk across the river too at the bend nearthe Old Camp. It wasn’t so deep then. And that’s where we used to carrythe water from. Two four-gallons [tins] on a yoke. We’d take three or fourbuckets down and take two at a time up the hill, full, on this yoke thing.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 64

Page 83: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Then we’d have a little tin with a wire over the top and a hook alwayshanging beside the water bucket or water bag at the camp. It was forpeople to just take out what they wanted to drink and put it into theircup. I’d have to carry those buckets up from the river and I’d watch ’emgetting water out with that little tin: they’d always take just two sips andthrow the rest away! We used to have to carry the water up a few timeseach day. It all depends on the size of your washing! [laughs] We’d mainlywash down here at the river. But just imagine in the summertime withdrinking and cooking and washing . . . Sometimes we’d have to boil it upfirst for drinking, but other times we’d just drink it.

We’d always be worried about sores on the kids’ skin and in theirheads then. Nanna Pearlie had a good old way to fix them, because sheknew a lot about that sort of thing. And she used to get us to wash the kidsheads five times a day with water boiled up with leaves from the Eurahbush. Of course that was another bucket of water from the river!

Friday was wood day, and we’d walk for miles looking for wood andnot think anything of it. Because Friday was the day all the fathers’d behome from work out on the stations, and all the kids would be going tothe pictures. So we needed the wood to heat the water for baths andFriday was ironing day too. We had to get the wood to burn the fires toheat up those old flat irons! Hardly anybody had kerosine irons on thecamp in those days, so we’d heat all the flat irons up on the fires.

Weekends were busy social times on the Old Camp, with people in from workingon the stations, seeing family and friends, and spending some of the cash from theirweek’s work. Gambling was an important opportunity to do many different things,like socialising, catching up on news and gossip and even talking over communityissues, as well as taking part in the excitement of the winning and losing. Isabelenjoyed gambling, and she was often at the bingo schools and dice games. Sheremembered the atmosphere of the big schools on the Old Camp:

Once Angledool people moved to Colle, a lot of people used to come and go,to have big gambling games and dice games. And they used to have greattimes, you know. I’ve seen blokes play for big money . . . and just lost every-thing they had. Come in from out in the bush working, then stony broke thatafternoon . . . But the good thing was that they’d always go round, make sureall the kids had lollies and everything. And everybody had money. If theyknew someone was down the end there and they had no money, they madesure they’d go and give them something.

As I got older and I started going round the gambling schools myself,I saw one bloke who lost everything this day, he lost everything. One minute

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 65

Page 84: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman


Map of Collarenebri and close-up of town streets.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 66

Page 85: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

he’s sitting there with all these nice clothes on and, you know, really riggedout, and then, after a while, I go back there and he’s sitting there withsomebody else’s old clothes on. And the other fella’s got it all packed up. Andthen someone gives him money or something, he’s done all that money, soldout and done all that money. He walks away laughing. And everybody waslaughing at him too, you know.

The next day he’d be back there again, having another go. If someonedid that today, he’d want to be swearing and fighting and everything. Butthen everybody’d be taking care about him, but they’re not going to worryabout him that much, you know. He did it. But they’d always make sure thatthey were giving him a fair go. You know, if somebody got a bit of a win up,they’d throw him some money, and next week he may be on top, he’s awinner. There was a lot of that. There were very few women would be in thebig gambling games, it would be the men, I suppose they had the moneybecause they were working . . . But see, they weren’t people that forgot abouttheir families either. They went around and fixed up all our little debts andtheir family things and they went round and see their mobs, see if they all hadmoney, and then they’d all get together and put it together I suppose you’dsay. And if someone . . . everybody’s going to the pictures, everybody’s makingsure nobody’s going to miss out because of this.

Despite the pace of life within the community, the overwhelming issue for all Murrisliving in the town was the intrusive and frightening presence of the police. Thistheme overshadows everyone’s recollections of life in the town in the 1950s.

I feared the police—everyone feared them because you wouldn’t know whenthey were going to do the rounds and they could just walk in your house, itdidn’t matter where you were. Yes, they’d just walk in and shine the torcharound if there was someone there that they thought was drunk. They onlyhad to think he was drunk and they’d pick him up. In our little camp theycould just walk in and it didn’t matter whether you were getting dressed or inthe bath or what. You know, we used to have old round bathtubs. Well, theynever asked to come in. They never did ask, ‘Could we come in?’ They justwalked in and looked around and screwed their noses up.

Dad warned us about the fact that they don’t own us, so we always haveto be careful, we always have to watch a policeman, because he had alwaysthis idea that the only good policeman was a dead one. [laughs] Because he’dapparently had some brushes with them! But we were just afraid because we’dsee everybody being herded into little jeeps.

I saw 16 men thrown into the back of a jeep once, and there was legshanging out everywhere, and they came along and asked us where some bloke

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 67

Page 86: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

was. And then the Murris were saying: ‘But why do you want to get this otherfella for? You can’t put him in there . . . look, there’s no room’. But all theseblokes were taken and locked up, and you know, everybody would feel sodisillusioned and frightened.

I think it was just a general fear, as soon as you’d see the jeep coming,everybody would be sitting around so proper. If there was a drunk atsomeone’s place even though he wasn’t doing any harm, he might’ve beenjust so happy, they’d try to get rid of him so that they wouldn’t get involvedwith the police action. They knew it was coming up and the police couldquite easily say, ‘What have you got so and so hanging around your place for?It might be their uncle or nephew or whatever—it might be even their ownson. I remember that very clearly.

I suppose I was about 17, one day at the Old Camp we were all playingaround and the cops drove straight up to where we were. They must’veknown every one of us. Because they said: ‘Where’s this Stanley Murray?’And somebody said: ‘Oh he’s gone fishing’. ‘So where’s he gone fishing?’Someone said: ‘He’s just gone fishing . . .’ and I said: ‘I don’t know. Hemightn’t be gone fishing’. And the way he looked at me that cop, he said:‘You wouldn’t know, would ya?’ I’ll never forget that. And I thought, ‘But Ireally didn’t know’.

We watched those police then go from one end of that river to the otheruntil they came back—and that was late in the afternoon—they came backwith that young fella, and he was only fishing. They took him down to hismother, and then they took him to the cells. And not long after someonesaid: ‘Oh, here he comes’. They couldn’t have kept him in. So we wonderedwhat they wanted him for. But no one ever knew what happened—whetherthey questioned him about anything or what.

But that’s how it was. If someone wasn’t there in the first round-up . . .When the police’d do their patrol in the morning, in every camp they’d knowwho was there and they’d say: ‘So where’s so and so?’ ‘Oh he’s gone out to therubbish tip.’ ‘Oh, he’ll be here when I get back.’ So if he wasn’t there the nexttime, well then they’d say: ‘He can’t be still out there all day’. So they wouldtake a drive out . . . just to make sure we were all together . . . that we wereall mustered, I suppose that’s the way to put it.

Up on the Old Camp up here, you had the police patrol coming aroundanything up to three to four times a day. They’re probably coming around inthe morning about nine o’clock, sometimes earlier than that. You’d neverknow exactly what time. You wouldn’t get used to the time, because they’ddo like swoop raids. And then they’d go around and if ‘uncle so and so’ wasn’tthere at that camp where he was supposed to be—I remember that—theyused to say: ‘Well, where’s so and so? Did he get a job?’ . . . ‘No, he’s not

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 68

Page 87: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

working’ . . . ‘So, where is he? He’d better be back here by the time I comearound the next time!’

And you were sure that the bloke would be back there the next time thecoppers’d come around . . . Someone would go—even if he went fishing—somebody would go and tell him the coppers were looking for him. And sowhen you think of it, we were under surveillance the full 24 hours, really.

They’d come around mainly on a Monday, and this is when they’d checkup to see who went out to work. Then on the Friday they’d be coming aroundlater in the afternoons, to see who came in from work. I remember once hecame to our camp and he said: ‘Oh, isn’t your old man coming in this week?’Because Mum would always say: ‘I don’t know’, you know, that was her mainanswer to everything! And then he’d say: ‘Oh, you don’t know much do you?’. . . and she says: ‘Well, I don’t know when he’s coming in’. And so, you know,we felt like they watched every move that we made . . . When you look backit was a terrible rule. We are lucky people to come through it.

I suppose being roped off in the picture theatre was one thing, but thepolice intimidation was the worst thing—just being hounded by the cops.One of the things I wanted to talk about in this book was . . . confrontation.It’s funny how our life began with that confrontation—watching it, youknow, watching how the cops could just walk in through the door and pushthe door back. And if you stood outside and opened the door, you could seeeverything inside just as well anyway, because most of the time it was so openinside the door. But those cops had to push right in!

We grew up to see how our people reacted to that kind of questioningabout where someone was and . . . ‘When are you going to work?’ ‘Where areyou working?’ ‘If you’re not working, why not?’ ‘What are you doing aboutgetting a job?’ and all that kind of questioning. And we were seeing howeverybody was very careful about what they were saying. As kids we’d learntto be cautious when we saw the cops coming. Our parents’d say: ‘Now youkids get right out of the way, so they can’t see you kids’. So we learnt thatpretty early.

And then the feeling of confrontation. I think when I first spoke to apoliceman I was just so trembly. I don’t know what the incident was, butI remember how it felt. I was so sick after just being questioned by the policeabout where so and so was and did I know where so and so was. Because theymight’ve just gone to our place and asked Mum and Dad and then they’d seeus and come across and ask us the same questions and I suppose they’dcompare the answers after. But that kind of conditioned us as we grew up.

Oh, there was always a dreadful fear about the police, and that feelingwent on right up until the late fifties when people started to think, well, youknow, ‘they don’t own us!’ And they started to stand up more and of course

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 69

Page 88: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

there was more court cases and everybody was guilty, of course! You know, theywere always found guilty until the Aboriginal Legal Services came. But theystarted to stand up before that, and when they stood up or run away from thepolice, then they were certainly brought in and charged with things like resist-ing arrest and things like that. But they were ‘guilty’, definitely ‘guilty’ beforethey went in.

During 1952, Isabel began a long relationship with Aubrey Weatherall, the brotherof Rosie and Doreen Weatherall. Isabel remained close friends with her sisters-in-law all through her life. Isabel and Aub’s first child, Larry, was born in 1954. Aubhad been married previously to Shirley Weatherall, from the Cunningham family,and in a small town this generated tension. Isabel developed good relationships withAub’s children, Bob, Dennis and Roma, from his first marriage, but her relation-ship with Aub’s first wife was to remain tense and distant for the rest of their lives.This deeply complicated Isabel’s work in Collarenebri in later years.

As her own family grew, Isabel’s experiences increasingly focused down ontoCollarenebri and to surviving as a mother. She became particularly concerned to getaccess to basic services for her children. In her memories of this period, the hospitaland the town’s medical system loom as the sites of major conflict. The hospitaloperated a separate and distant ward specifically for Aboriginal patients. Despiteequipment being labelled with the medical term ‘segregation’, the Hospital Boardalways referred to this separate ward as the ‘Aboriginal ward’ and this was howMurris and everyone else in the town understood its purpose. This ‘ward’ was infact a small weatherboard shed at the bottom of the hospital yard, across from thekitchen building, with room for a few crowded beds. There was a pathway joiningthis shed with the main hospital building. Babies born in the Aboriginal ward wouldthen be taken to the main hospital nursery, and brought to their mothers, across theopen garden path, at each feeding time, then returned to the nursery. Worried aboutrising costs in 1939, the Hospital Board discussed closing the separate ward andmoving all Aboriginal patients to the hospital verandahs. After lengthy consider-ation, the Board rejected this proposal, deciding that ‘The Aborigines Ward’ shouldremain open and that under no circumstances were Aboriginal patients to be trans-ferred to the main building, not even to the verandahs, despite the resulting financialcost of keeping extra staff.2

We had to fight for everything—school, hospital treatment. I remember weused to have to line up there at Outpatients at the hospital and pay the dollarbefore we saw the doctor, you know? I had a very sick kid one time. And thissecretary at the hospital he wanted a payment before I could see the doctorand I didn’t have it, whatever it was. And poor Shirley Mason, she used tohave to fight him every time she went there, because she owed him . . . it

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 70

Page 89: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

might be for five visits already. And she’d say, ‘If ever you shout at me againI’ll smash you!’ There were times when you thought you’d like to blow theirhead up, you know . . . But that hospital secretary was one of the real hardones that we had to deal with.

Different ones on duty would make it hard to see the doctor even if youhad paid your dollar. At one stage there I thought if I sat there in the front atOutpatients and waited, I’d be attended to. But I could sit there for hours andthey would just walk back and forwards. I went through a stage of that.I waited and waited and the doctor came and did his rounds and went. Sothere was no point in me sitting around there anymore, so I thought I bettergo down to the surgery and I said: ‘I want you to treat me here. If you can’tI’ll have to go somewhere else’. I told him what had happened and I said: ‘Youdon’t think this is happening, you’re so doubtful of what I’m saying. But thatis what’s happening and that is the issue’. I told him I wanted all my recordsto be brought down to his surgery office, otherwise I couldn’t have medicalattention in the town at all. And that was a pretty hard time too.

All the sheets and cutlery and crockery was separate, and I had itpictured in my mind that it all had ‘Abo Ward’ written on it. But Rosiereminded me that what they called it was ‘Segregation’. They had ‘SEG’ oneverything. Even over the door of the ward was painted ‘SEG’. And thecutlery was all stamped: Men’s, Women’s, Private and SEG. Everything wasseparate.

My sister-in-law, Rosie, was the laundress at the hospital when MrsDenison was killed at the Camp in 1952 after her husband went mad and cuther up with an axe. They called for Rosie to go down to the hospital and theambulance men were looking for something to wrap the body in, and they’recalling for ‘SEG sheets’. She told me she didn’t know what they wanted for aminute. Then all of a sudden it dawned on her: they wanted the segregationsheets from the ward. Poor Lizzie Denison was dead, but they still wouldn’tgive her the ordinary sheets. And then they couldn’t find the ‘SEG’ onesbecause they even had them stacked in a different cupboard.

There have been many occasions in Australia, and in the immediate surroundingsof Collarenebri, when racial tensions were expressed in terms of fears of disease.White people would accuse Aboriginal people of suffering and somehow deliberatelypassing on some infection or another. Whenever serious investigation has beencarried out in such cases, as it sometimes was in conflicts about school attendance,it has usually found little evidence to show contagion to the white population hasoccurred. More often the opposite is the case: indigenous populations have oftenbeen gravely at risk of contracting diseases brought by settlers. This has beencommon when government policies have enforced overcrowding in poor sanitary

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 71

Page 90: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

conditions, so that in the 1930s the reports of Education Department doctorsshowed that the ‘missions’ like Brewarrina and Angledool were far less healthyplaces for Aborigines to live than were the ‘fringe camps’ and stock route camps onthe edges of towns.

The confused accusation that Aborigines were carrying and somehow maliciouslytransmitting infections had been a common feature of debates about Aboriginal policyin the areas around Collarenebri during the 1930s. They had been particularlydemonstrated in all the debates about whether Aboriginal children should have accessto the public schools of the area. The trachoma epidemics which swept Angledoolmission in 1934 and Toomelah mission in 1936, and which were still being treatedwith bluestone when Isabel was there in 1938, were widely rumoured among the whitepopulation of the region to be sexually transmitted. This was not true, but the misap-prehension was spread by local police and other officials as they relayed various whitecommunity objections to school access or to the wholesale transportation of even moreAboriginal families into the missions. The remedies proposed by local white groupsinvariably involved tight restrictions on Aboriginal people’s movements and theirexclusion from the main streets and public facilities of the townships.

The Aborigines Protection Board took advantage of this widespread publicattitude to gain parliamentary approval for new restrictive legislation in 1936,lasting until 1969, which severely controlled Aboriginal people’s movement in NewSouth Wales and directed the police to enforce even closer monitoring and surveil-lance over any Aboriginal residence, on private land as well as on Aboriginalreserve lands. Repeated accusations about contagious disease and ‘negligent’ lack ofhygiene were a central part of the white parents’ campaigns against Aboriginalchildren’s attendance at the Collarenebri public school in 1938, 1941 and 1947.

Fears about infectious disease were particularly common in 1956 because itwas a year of severe and persistent flooding, with floods passing over the Collaren-ebri area in February, May and June. This increased problems with mosquito andwaterborne diseases and meant that septic and pit sewage disposal was not workingproperly as all the surrounding blacksoil ground was waterlogged.

It was in this context that the Collarenebri township heard the news in 1956 thatone of the small children in the Flick family homes on the Block had developed anunusual infection. The new doctor in town was Frank McGarn, an ex-servicemanwho had graduated in medicine after his return from World War II and who hadarrived in the town directly from an urban practice in February1956. He was unpre-pared for the town’s hostile insistence on prolonged quarantine. As his uneasinessover the situation increased, he became more open in voicing his concerns to the Flickfamily as the quarantine period was extended and extended again.

We went through a real crisis in 1956 there when we were quarantined. Oneof Rosie and Lindsay’s daughters was about three or four and she got sick with

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 72

Page 91: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

big purple blotches on her skin. They never did find out what it was, but theythought at first it might be scarlet fever or meningitis. So they put us all underquarantine and we couldn’t leave the Block.

The doctor said to us: ‘One of you people could pass it on. You’ve pickedthis up somewhere and you can pass it on. But you can only pass it on tochildren. So, in my books you should be able to go down and shop, normally.I don’t think there’s any need for this quarantine. But that’s what the police. . . what they all decided. They had a big public meeting and the towns-people decided that you people had to be quarantined. And that adults cantalk to one another, but you’re not to talk to any of the kids, any kids thatmight go past’.

I forget exactly how long we were in quarantine. I think it was somethinglike six weeks. We weren’t allowed to go down town and all our shopping hadto be brought to us. I was having Brenda, Claire was having Gregory, Rosiewas having Gavin and Isobelle was having Joey. It was a really dreadful timefor us you know, because of all these big bellied women and all that. And ofcourse Dad and Aub and Joe was out of town, they were all out working. Andwhen they came in they weren’t allowed to come in to the Block, as if thatcould stop the infection spreading! But Dad used to bring us stuff and used tocome in nearly every day and made sure we had plenty of everything.

Joe decided he’d stay in there with us for a while. And the milkman,Walter Stallworthy that had the dairy, he used to come there every day andmake sure we had milk. He was really pissed off because of the quarantine.He’d tell Joe what they were saying downtown and he said: ‘I don’t thinkthere’s any need for this’.

And there was a couple of old drunken fellas who’d come right in there.They’d say: ‘I don’t give a bugger’. And we’d be saying: ‘Oh don’t come innow, you’ll get into trouble’ and one old fella, Old Uncle Bungie, says: ‘No,I will not. They won’t stop me. They put me in gaol all the time anyway. Soit doesn’t matter’. Poor old fella, he used to get picked up and gaoled justbecause he was too drunk to go home. So we’d sit outside with them then, soif it really came to the crunch we could say: ‘Well, they didn’t come inside thehouse’. I don’t know what they expected of us. But anyway, we used to sit onone side of the fence and talk to Dad on the other side. Barbara was five thenand she can remember talking to her Pop through the fence.

Another fellow, Robert Mundy, he came in from out at work. I alwaysthought that showed a real concern for us. He was out working at one of thestations and he heard about the quarantine. So he told the boss he was goingin to see his people and see what was going on. And we thought, what a nicething for him to have done. He was the only black fella that did that. Andhe used to come there every morning, and we’d say: ‘Here comes Robert now’.

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 73

Page 92: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And all the kids would say: ‘Oh Uncle Robert bringing us something’ . . .Uncle Robert would always bring fruit and lollies. And he’d be back andforward to the doctors, asking the doctor what’s going on. He’d say: ‘Wentand seen the doctor today, and the poor little doctor he can’t do nothingabout it’. And the kids used to just idolise him after that. We said, ‘Well atleast one fella really cared about us’.

Dr McGarn came up and said: ‘Look, another public meeting coming up’.We said, ‘Oh? What happened now?’ And he said: ‘Well, someone downtown reckoned they saw Jimmy downtown’. ‘No, no, no, Jimmy wasn’t downthere. No’, we said. And we knew that was so. No one’d left the Block . . .you know . . . illegally, as they say. So he goes through this big inspection ofall the kids. And he comes up and says: ‘No need to look at these bloody kids,but I just want to make sure you’re all right. I’m not on the other side of thefence really’. And then we got to know him. And he said: ‘I’ll keep youposted’.

So next morning he comes up and he said: ‘Well, they agreed that, tosafeguard the town . . . Now this is just to make sure you don’t infect thetown. We need to put another two weeks on it’. And he said: ‘And I tried toconvince them that legally they couldn’t do that to you. But of course, I’mjust the doctor here’. And we said: ‘Okay Doc, we’ll do exactly what they say.And no harm done. We’re right’. He said: ‘You’re lucky you’ve got your ownlittle piece of land here that you’re on. I asked the meeting what would havehappened if someone in the middle of town would have got the same thing.And it could have happened. Of course, no one answered that’. And that’swhere we left it.

To think it didn’t have to happen, but it did happen. And all thosethings are there now in the past. I think that they’ve made me a better personwhen I think: ‘How can people just do that and then be so nice to you whenyou go downtown?’ And then I think: ‘Well, that’s their problem it’s notmine!’

And in the middle of all of this, Brenda was born but I didn’t even getinto hospital. So she was born at home. It was a rough little camp, all flat-tened tins, but that’s where Brenda was born, in that rough little camp. Andthey sent Rosie [Weatherall Flick] for the taxi. Rosie rips down and gets thetaxi and she’s standing outside then when I said to Dicky Hansen, ‘Oh, it’stoo late for you Dicky, I’m going to have this baby here, you’ll have to go andget the ambulance’. And Rosie’s saying: ‘Oh no, Dicky, don’t do that’. PoorDicky, he didn’t know what to do! So he realised then, yeah, that I washaving the baby. And anyhow he goes back, ’cause he was the taxi driver andthe ambulance driver all together, and says: ‘Come on Henry’ to HenryDenyer, ’cause he was the ambulance driver too.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 74

Page 93: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

I had to go back inside to have the baby. Oh dear, it was a turn. AndIsobelle was saying: ‘Oh look Sis, you can’t have your baby here now, youknow you can’t have it here. Oh you must be feverish’. And my little sisterRose said she remembers she was in one of those two little rooms off on theside and she could hear all the commotion. And she was frightened to comeout, because she would have had to come out of the side room into this bigkitchen where I was. So she had to stay there! She said to me later: ‘I’llremember this you know. You’ll never get me wanting to have a baby’. Andshe went on to have about seven of her own I think!

And poor old Nanna Pearlie Mason was walking down the road, going totown and they dragged her over because she was the midwife out at Ang-ledool, and so she calmed them all down, and cut the cord and all that, justwhen the ambulance officers came in. But we had a bit of a difficult time withBrenda because they really had to work on making her cry. Anyhow that wasmy experience with home births. I had a home delivery and all the nurses inthe world around me!

I was so weak then, that as soon as I got to hospital, Dr McGarn says he’ddecided to send me straight on to Tamworth. Brenda had to stay behind withIsobelle and Rosie and Clare. Now there was Henry Denyer, the main ambu-lance officer and old Dick Hansen the taxi driver was his sidekick. And theyhad a little Volkswagon ambulance and we had a sister travel with us too.And when we got to Moree, the big flood was happening then, all around.And they said: ‘I’ll just go around and get a big truck to follow us out over thisarea where they say we might get caught, because we’ll get swamped for sureif it comes over us’. And sure enough, this bank broke just when we got there.And it was just turning towards dark, and we could see this wall of watercoming towards us. So they got me up into the cabin of the truck, I was onlyabout seven stone then, can you imagine it? And then with this wall of water,they’d just got me up into the truck and it hits them, and it went straight overthe little Volkswagon. And sure enough, we’re stuck in that then . . . oh, forhours in the dark.

Dickie Hansen had to go back to get some help to come out and take usback to Moree. And that’s what happened then early in the morning. Andthey’re keeping me awake, one of the main things they told me was, ‘You mustnot go to sleep. You’re not allowed to go to sleep’. So, there we were, playing‘I Spy’ . . . me and Henry and the sister, because Dick’s gone to get help.

It was just on the daybreak then, and Dickie comes back with this biggrader. That’s how he had to get us out, by grader back to dry land andanother ambulance and then back into Moree Hospital. And gee, I admiredHenry then. He said: ‘Now all I want to know is: will she make it toTamworth? I want to fly her to Tamworth’. And apparently they said no, so

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 75

Page 94: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

I was treated there. And it’s funny how I seem to have waited until there wasa decision made and then all of a sudden the room was going all around andI was out for about four days.

But I woke up after a little while and there’s this helluva row going onwith the matron and the staff there. Henry was saying: ‘We’ve got segregationdown there in Colle. But this is not segregation, this is a boiler room or some-thing!’ They’d put me right out the back, because they didn’t know what kindof disease I had. So, he really went on until they said: ‘Okay we’ll shift her upinto this room’. When I woke up properly, I was in this nice little room withflowers. So he’d really done his job, and he came over and said to me: ‘Well,I’m off home now. You should be pretty right now they tell me. But you’re justgoing to have to stay here a while’. So I stayed there for weeks in Moree untilwe caught the train back.

Now with all the floods, Aub couldn’t bring the baby over to me, so theyhad to bottle feed her. Oh don’t talk about it, they had such a time. Of course,this was the first bottle baby in our family. We had all kinds of visions aboutthat. And by the time I get back there, everybody is nearly a nervous wreck,because they’ve got to put so much of that milk and so much of this milk andPentavite, so many drops of this . . . And when they actually brought herhome from hospital, they’re doing it all at home see.

And this day I’m watching Geoffrey making it, Clare’s husband. Every-body was having a turn at making up the bottles. Geoffrey was making it,with the measurements really right, and then someone said something to him. . . oh, he went off. He said: ‘You know, I was counting this . . . ’ He reallywent off about it. And then he had to put all the milk back. And he said:‘That’s no good. I have to throw the milk out now’. In the end then I thinkLindsay came in to town. I think it had to be that Lindsay had to stopworking, come in here and take over, and that’s what happened. He was thefella to do the bottles and everything.

Now after I’d come back, the others were nearly ready to have theirbabies. They had to have their babies in the segregation ward, the little sheddown the back of the hospital yard. There was room for a couple of bedsinside the shed, and there was a little sort of back verandah where the babieswere actually born. I had Ben in that SEG ward in 1949, and my sister-in-lawIsobelle had Johnny in 1950 and Patsy in 1953 in there. Then in 1954 I hadLarry there too. The babies’d be born in this little room no bigger than abathroom at the back and then they’d take the babies up to the main hospitalto the nursery. Then they’d bring them down along this little open pathwayevery feed time and afterwards they’d take them all the way back again. Theonly time you’d get into the real labour ward was if something was goingreally wrong with the birth.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 76

Page 95: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

By 1956, they were still putting Murri patients in the SEG ward and thisis where I would have had Brenda if I’d had time to get to the hospital. Clarewent in with Gregory, and Rosie was nearly ready to have Gavin. ThenIsobelle was ready to have Joey, but they’d all had enough by then. This wasthe time when she said: ‘We’re not going to have our babies over there anymore, in that segregation ward!’

Dr McGarn must have had enough too. Isobelle said: ‘I refuse to have mybaby out on that back verandah’. And she kicked up a big fuss about havingit over there. Joe had gone back out to work on the stations by then. And thislittle Dr McGarn said: ‘Well I’m going to refuse to deliver your baby downthere, girl. You need to keep refusing to have your baby in that ward. And ifyour husband’s got to come into it, well, he’s got to come into it’. And sothat’s how that started, she refused to have it over there. So he said he refusedto deliver the baby there, so, don’t worry about the meeting . . . every daythey were having full Board meetings. They said: ‘Oh, Mrs Flick you’ll haveto get your husband to come in’. This is getting serious see.

And the funny part of this, the old minister was one of the Board ofDirectors, you know. So, next minute the Chairman of the Board come up tothe Block and tried to sort it out. No, that was the stand. Then the full Boardcome. They said: ‘Oh well, someone has to go and make sure Joe comes in.We’ll talk to Joe about this’. And so I think that’s when Joe came back in andthey stuck to their guns. I think Joey was the first black kid that was born inthere without there being an emergency. But that’s how that changed.

From there on then we used to be in beds on the verandah of the mainhospital, and have the babies in the labour ward. So we were still not in themain maternity ward, just outside it. It had fly screen, but it wasn’t too warm!But we weren’t in the segregated shed then. So that little bit changed there.

So, we stood up for a lot of things in the town here, and this was one ofthem, over Joey, over having him in the labour ward. There was a lot ofhostility, I think they found it hard to accept, but they eventually had to dealwith it. And I might add, the doctor didn’t stay there very long. He had to go. . . he didn’t have a real good time in Colle.

I was very sick when I got back to Colle after I’d had Brenda. It was just afterthey’d closed off that segregated ward and put us on the front verandah. Andthe only time they’d take us in was if it rained or if it got windy. And so thatwas a sort of graduation from segregation to . . . a bit of an Annex in thehospital, just like the old Annex with the school in the 1940s!

When you were there for a while like I was then, you could hear the sistersmaking snide jokes about people, always about black people. One sister inparticular used to say it in front of me just to get me cranky because I’d started

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 77

Page 96: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

to react to some of the things she had to say. She used to always make a pointof being out on the verandah when the kids were coming past going to schooland she’d say: ‘Oh here’s that lovely little golliwog girl there. Look, isn’t shejust like a little golliwog?’ And I used to get so mad, I used to say: ‘You’d neversay that to her mother, but you say it to me because you know I won’t tellthem. I won’t tell them because I know they’ll come in here and they’ll slapyour face and they won’t care what the cops say’. There were lots of things likethat. I’m sure the others must’ve suffered that kind of stuff too. She used to talkabout the blacks when they used to go past the hospital because they used tohave to go that way to go home from town to the Old Camp.

It wasn’t something you could go and talk about. And in that time whenyou look at it, it wasn’t all that long ago. This sister would see one of the oldfellas coming in to see our patients. She’d say: ‘Oh here comes Sambo again. . . Oh! . . . It takes him all day to say three words’. I used to say to her: ‘Ifonly you had the guts to say that to his wife, she’d knock you clean over’. Andshe said: ‘Oh you can tell her’. I knew I couldn’t tell her because she wouldcome and tear her down and anyone else with her. I didn’t want to causetrouble like that, so I had to put up with a lot of that. But she was the onethat stood out like that. The others I couldn’t say treated me badly. ButI didn’t feel I could tell anyone. There was no one that you could talk to. Halfthe time this sister was sister-in-charge anyway. And when the matron camearound and did the rounds, that’s all she was doing, just doing her rounds withthe doctor.

That same particular sister knew I was very sick, I was really sick. I didn’thave visitors all the time because our mob would just send in the kids fromschool to pick up my washing and take it, because they were all busy tryingto survive over there. I remember when I was there, I started to get worse andhad to have a transfusion, and she tried to make out that I was bunging it on.When Dr McGarn came he said: ‘Why have you got all these blankets on?’And I said: ‘Oh, well, she put these blankets on me’. And he said: ‘But why?You don’t need all that’. And I said: ‘Well, ask her’. And so they walked away,because he was working with this sister you see, I could hear her saying: ‘Ohone minute she wants all the blankets on and the next minute she wantsthem all off. I just don’t know what’s going on with her. I can’t read her atall’. And I thought: ‘Bugger you’.

Now he had to monitor the transfusion, and so he used to come aroundevery now and again. So the next time he comes around, he said: ‘You haven’tgot anything on now’. She’d take everything off. And he’d be feeling my pulseand he started taking my temperature again. I looked at him straight in theface and said, ‘She wants you to believe that I’m just bunging this on, but she’snot telling you what’s really going on’. He woke up then. And I heard him say:

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 78

Page 97: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

‘Listen sister, this transfusion has to go on, and it has to be done tonight. Andshe’s only got so many hours to complete this. So if you don’t mind, I’ll get mywife to come and sit with her, because she’s been a bit unsettled, well, youcan’t handle her apparently’. So his wife came down and she sat with me,because I was feeling so ill.

And she was even kinder than he was. And anyhow, the next time thenhe’d come and sit while she went and did her packing. Because they weregetting ready to leave. And she said to me: ‘We’re in the middle of packing . . . we feel we have to go. We couldn’t believe what was just happening withyou. We wouldn’t be able to report it to the police. The police would notlisten. So it’d be best for us to move on’. And he said to me: ‘I couldn’t havethis going on all the time!’ So they moved on. They went to Quirindi soonafter and then I heard he went back to Canberra.

You were really at the mercy of the nursing staff. Like, eventually I toldthat little girl’s mother about how that sister used to talk about this little‘golliwog girl’ and I told the others and they used to go: ‘I don’t like her’. Butthat’s about all they could say, they couldn’t do much else. But you werebetter off to keep fighting. And you know, to overcome stuff like that you’vegot to gain something from the experience, you know? I still say, that poorsister had the problem, didn’t she? I can’t even remember her name. So seehow insignificant really she was to me.

The tensions in the town and the Murri challenges to the local authorities were notevident to outsiders, even to sympathetic ones. Archie Kalokerinos was the doctorwho followed Frank McGarn to Collarenebri early in 1957. Archie’s autobiographymakes it clear that he already saw himself as a loner, with little interest in cultivatingsocial approval. From the beginning he refused to comply with the petty segregationof the hospital and medical structures of the town. He was horrified by the physicalconditions of the Aboriginal camp and by the poor health of the Aboriginal com-munity. But Archie appears to have had no inkling at the time of the turbulentmonths which had just passed in the town and he was not aware of the tenaciousprotests which had forced the school open in the forties and had so recently gainedaccess to at least the hospital verandahs. Instead, he saw a downtrodden and, in hisview, a passive community, with no one other than Mick Flick confident enough toexpress protests at the discrimination which was still so evident.

But Isabel, the other Flick families and the wider Murri community, saw them-selves in an ongoing and indeed escalating struggle with the township. To them,Archie was a surprising and welcome ally whose support might tip the balance in theconflict. His presence in the town from 1957 to 1964, then again from 1967 till1977 allowed new hope to emerge that decent conditions could be achieved, and thatalliances could be made with outsiders which could challenge local power.

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 79

Page 98: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And it wasn’t long after that that Archie came and a lot of things changedthen that made it so much easier for us. We had had to fight for everything—school, hospital treatment. I remember we used to have to line up there andpay the dollar before we saw the doctor, you know? Until Archie Kalokerinoscame here and then he started saying: ‘Well, don’t worry about that then.You’re all getting upset about that dollar . . . just come across to the surgeryand we’ll work it out there’.

Archie had a hard time at the hospital a lot of the time. He couldn’twork with one matron, he went through a time when he was just ‘a blackdoctor’ and we said ‘that can happen, the doctor can come here and he canbe seeing more blacks than whites, so he’s got to be a black doctor’. But Idon’t think he was very happy there. He wanted a lot of things brought intothe community too and what he wanted was too expensive, the governmentwouldn’t even consider some of the stuff that he wanted to do there.

We put on a turn there at one stage when we didn’t want Archie toleave. And that was a difficult time for Murris too. And he said to me: ‘I haveto leave, because if I don’t leave they’ll call me too late and it’ll probably beone of your kids or one of the people that I’m dealing with, and that canhappen. We can’t overlook that. And I wouldn’t take that risk’.

As Archie Kalokerinos recognised, Mick Flick was a well known and active partici-pant in town affairs. His war record was acknowledged on Anzac Day and heregularly contributed to town activities and charities, as the Collarenebri Gazettereported, often bringing in fish to be raffled or sold to raise money for the CWA orthe hospital. Mick’s personal sense of disillusionment with the white townspeopledeepened over time, as his family became aware, but his pivotal role within hisfamily intensified as he became the focal point for his grandchildren in the busyBlock community.

After Dad’s boss left Longswamp to retire to the city, Dad did all kinds ofthings. He could put his hand to any kind of work. He was doing thatshearing contracting for a while and then he was always fencing or shearingright up until the last thing. He was what they call ‘an expert in the shed’ ongrinding tools for the shearers. That was a pretty easy job, so right up untilthe last he still did things like that, even though he was entitled to a service-men’s pension. But he got to really hate the system—the repatriationsystem—so much that he kept refusing to apply for that pension. They stillwouldn’t let Murris into the RSL club. And they haven’t done it either, nottill very recently . . . So there was an exclusion from the other facilities thatRSL men had access to. There’s a lot of Aboriginal members in the RSL clubnow. Some of my family are members. But I still remain one that . . . you

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 80

Page 99: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

know, I think that it wasn’t good enough for my Dad, so I don’t think they’regood enough for me.

Joe and Isobelle’s son, Joey, did some research for us a while ago, andfound out how to look up Dad’s war record. Then my sister Rose got Dad’s filefor us, and she got a better idea about why he didn’t want to take a service-man’s pension:

Rose: When I went down looking for his records with the number thatyoung Joey told me, ‘4292’, the army bloke doing the research said: ‘Ican’t find it, are you sure of the number’, and he went over and over it,and he said: ‘Just a moment’. He was in there for a long time and he cameback, and he said: ‘This man was trained for two positions, and that wasLighthorse and machine-gunner, and he also carried out duties as anAmbulance man . . . and he also volunteered to stay over there’ . . . Andhe got paid . . . what? . . . twenty pounds. Then he came back and theychased him around the river trying to take his kids off him.

But in those days, his old mates used to think it was such a great thing that hewas a soldier and in the march each year. And we grew up thinking that too.And then, this old friend of his died. It was after the Old Camp got moved in1960, across the Walgett bridge to where the Wollai, the reserve, is now. Thefirst ANZAC Day afterwards we said: ‘Oh, Dad, aren’t you going down to themarch today?’ and he said: ‘No, I only used to go because my old mate used towant me to go’.

And I said: ‘Well, it was great’, and we started to say: ‘Come on . . . ’, wethought it was terrible, that he didn’t want to get involved. And he said:‘Hey, listen, you know, I’ll tell you what war is all about . . . it’s about peoplekilling each other. We must’ve killed some really good blokes and theymust’ve killed some really good blokes on our side’. And he said: ‘And thenyou look at the way these white people treat us, they won’t care about metomorrow. They only want me just to make out that we’re all good matestogether and all that’.

I don’t think we really wanted to accept that, we just thought he was justbeing a funny old bloke. ‘Oh, no’, he said, ‘I’m invited out for my dinner overat the reserve today, and that’s exactly where I’m going’. We said: ‘Oh, whatare you going over there for Dad?’ and he said: ‘Look, I’d rather spend mytime with my people. There’s Shirley and Freddy asked me over there forlunch and I’m going over there for my lunch. They think that I’m importantand it’s important for us to have dinner together’.

So, we said: ‘Oh. Anyway, they’ll be marching soon’. He said: ‘Yes, Iknow which way I’m marching—I’m marching straight across the bridge and

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 81

Page 100: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

nobody is going to stop me’. And that’s what he did, you know? He put on hismedals and he marched down the street in the opposite direction to the bigmarch, across the bridge to the reserve. And from there on he always wentacross the river then, and they always made a big dinner for him. And every-body used to make a joke about him going over to the mob while he shouldbe up there with all the wandas3 you know? And they used to give him a bitof a ribbing: ‘Go on, you used to go before’, and he’d say: ‘Oh, yeah, well I hada reason then—my mate, see, my mate wanted me to go so I went to pleasemy mate’.

Isabel Flick


Joe Flick with Joey on truck runningboard, c. 1958. (Photo: Karen Flick)

Brenda and Amy (on left),Isabel’s daughters, and Marjorieand Stephanie (on right), Rose’sdaughters, at Mick’s house on theBlock at Collarenebri, c. 1961.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 82

Page 101: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But I have the strongest memories of Dad in those later years from theway he got on with the grandkids. I used to spend a lot of time with my grand-kids. But I haven’t got all that time that he used to spend with them. See,they just see me as Old Gran that comes now and again and says ‘G’day’ tothem, and ‘hello, how you going’. But I’d have liked to be able to do the samething that my father did—he spent a lot of time with his grandkids. More sothan with us when they started to grow up and become his mates. So that wasanother wonderful part of our life too. I think a lot of those things havebecome so important to me now that I must get this down in this book so thatat least my grandkids will know something about me too.

For a long time now I’ve been thinking about the way Dad was able toget on with those kids. I suppose all grandfathers and grandparents develop adifferent way of working with the kids. But after they got to a certain age—about nine or 10—they’d be with him more than us. So he’d be organising forthe big events for them, like cracker night. The kids would know that he’d becoming in from work specially for cracker night. And they’d go out to therubbish tip and the boys would pick up a couple of motor car tyres and bringthem back to burn them, to kick the fire off. That was a really fun time. First,I didn’t bother getting involved. But then, after a while, well Isobelle wasalways there and old Granny Ada4 would be with us. And she’d say: ‘Oh, youwanna come. You watch how he goes on with the kids. And he can handthem one cracker and that’d be fine. But if we give ’em just one cracker,they’d be looking to see why they didn’t get the same as the other kids’. Sohe had a way of controlling how it all worked.

He probably had a yarn to them before I’d realised what was going on.But they’d get these bloody crackers, and he’d be the fella to take themshopping. And on the afternoon, they’d be expecting him, whatever time.And they’d be all out the front, playing and watching down the road. Andthe first one that sees him sings out and then they’ll rush out. And we’resaying: ‘Oh, it’s on now’. And all the kids, they’ll all want to go in the car.He’d always have some kind of old bomb. When he got the truck they’d beall on the open truck, going down town, and pointing out all the newcrackers that’s coming out.

I don’t know how much he used to spend on the crackers, but I’d say thefull week’s wages. Then when they all came back, someone’d make sure theyhad tea ready for him over at his camp. It’d always be someone, might beBarbara or the little sister we lost,5 or sometimes the boys would go and makesure they had his tea ready. And he’d have his tea there while they’re makingthe bonfire.

And we just said, ‘What a relationship he had with them’, because he’dpass out all these crackers. Someone would always have the say on who gets

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 83

Page 102: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

all the throwdowns. And he’d say: ‘Okay, whose turn is it?’ And someone’llsay, ‘It’s my turn’, and they’d be okay. And they’d make sure all the little onesgot the throwdowns. The bigger ones would want some too, but then he’dsay: ‘Oh no, I think you’re too big for a throwdown’. And there’d be nosquabble about it.

And Isobelle and I, we used to just look at one another when he’d say:‘Oh no, he’s too big for a throwdown. And so he’s into the big stuff now’, he’dsay. So I suppose he used to be building them up too, like growing them up.But the big sky rockets, he’d say: ‘Okay, this is real stuff now, we’ve all got tobe careful’. And long before they put the ban on all these big sky rockets, hehad that relationship with the kids and he was controlling the safety of thatnight.

Then there’d be something like the football grand finals in the regionand they’d want to go. They’d be all really doing everything for Dad. Andhe’d come in and say: ‘Hello, something’s going on’. And they’d say: ‘Footyon in Mungindi’. ‘Oh, right.’ So he’d end up taking them if it was the biggame. Most of the other kids would be gone. He had a little ‘T’ Model car andthat used to be packed. How he got away with loading it like that, with kidson, I’ll never know. But he’d let the kids out as he drove past the oval. He’dlet a couple of kids out and then he’d let a couple more kids out. So when hedrove into the football ground he’d only have two or three in the car. Weused to say, ‘He’s going to get caught’. But he never did.

Isabel Flick


Mick Flick with the truck he drovethe kids around in.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 84

Page 103: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And show times, he’d organise the girls one year. Never missed theMoree Show, or the Walgett Show. So one time it’d be the girls going toMoree. And they’d be fussing around, making a big fuss, just tormenting theboys. They’d walk back and forwards. ‘I forgot something’. And he’d besitting in the car, just waiting. ‘Oh, we went through this last year’. Or theboys, the boys do the same to the girls. And I used to think: ‘I don’t knowhow he had the patience to just do that with the older ones’, especially whenthey were 11 or 12.

So he just had a little unit of mates. And when Mum would take off,she’d be gone for months and months. And the kids would all move in withDad, to stay with him in his camp on the Block. Especially if Joe got a bitsolid about something. He was a very strict father and if he took the straparound one of the kids, they’ll take off over to Dad’s. Not that Dad tried tointerfere, but he’d say: ‘Oh dear, I should have belted him when he was little’,or something like that, to make the kids feel better. I even saw him at onestage telling the kids to cry, so that we can all go out with him. At that timewe were all on this property where he was managing, the Wilgas. So every-body had a job. We used to often go up along the river, fishing or something.The men didn’t want to go out fishing this time because it’s Saturday morning


Camp children at a farewell for a well-liked local policeman. Lubby (Isabel’s sister) is thirdfrom left with bow in hair and in spotted dress. Patsy (Joe and Isobelle’s third child) is infront looking at camera. Late 1950s.

Building Pressures

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 85

Page 104: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

and they would rather have gone to town, only about 13 miles away. But Dadwanted to go out fishing and the kids all wanted to go too. So he said ‘I can’ttake youse all, see? I can only take the three big fellas’. But he said to theother kids: ‘Now, when I go up there, about where that tree is up there, you’vegot to start crying and see if that works. It mightn’t work, but you’ve just gotto see if it does’. Sure enough, didn’t they put on a turn when he gets up tothat place and he’s taking his time filling the radiator with water andchecking the tyres.

We were in a hut just across the road and I’m watching him andthinking: ‘Well, he really needs the mates. He wants everybody to go withhim’. How the kids started crying! And everybody started getting chipped offabout everybody and oh, they’re going off at the kids. All the time he’s stillrattling things up at the tree . . . and kids running up the road and kids onhis arm.

At last everybody said: ‘Oh well, we might as well go with him I suppose.Go on, pack your dinners. Pack something up’. Lindsay used to get reallycranky. And Joe. And Old Aub would say: ‘Oh well, we might as well go Isuppose. Doesn’t look like we’re going to town. Anyhow, we’d better packsomething’. Then Larry said, ‘You don’t have to pack nothing! Grandfather’sgot all those’. I said: ‘What?’ He said: ‘That’s true, he’s got it all’. And he hadmeat for a barbecue and he had all these fishing lines and everything. He hadall the tucker packed, enough for everybody. Everything was ready. AndI thought, ‘Well, this bloke can’t be true!’

I didn’t say anything to the others, I just said to Aub that’s what I sawhim do. And he said: ‘Oh well, he must really want us to go with him’. Soaway we went. Lindsay had one truck and Joe had another old bomb. And sowe had to go in the big lorry. All these kids on it.

And, you know, he was teaching them all the time, when we were goingalong. He said: ‘Nobody knows how to knock a goanna, do they?’ And he’dpulled up then. By that time he’s pulled up and talking about how he saw thisbig goanna up in the tree. He said: ‘So we’ve all got to be careful now becausethe boys are going to have a shot at it’. The boys are taught how to load therifle. Had to take it in turns at having a shot. And when I look back now I cansee that was what he was doing. Showing them then how you put the gunback in the car. And as I went along I noticed that the boys learned how tohandle all these guns.

Anyhow, when we gets out there, two volunteered to make the fire andhe’s showing them how. And this was a big lagoon where we were. And Dadsaid: ‘This is the best place to get fish I ever knew’. ‘Oh, right.’ So we had thefish net and everything and we got on that to drag up and down. AndLindsay’s getting a bit suspicious then. He’d say: ‘You knew all the time we

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 86

Page 105: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

was coming out here. What about us, we wanted to have our weekend off, wewanted to go to town’. He was getting a bit shitty about it. And he said: ‘No,no, we’ll just give it a couple of runs with this net. I just had it on the truck,I should have took it off ’. Away they go. And they drag it up one side of thismuddy lagoon, then they dragged it back. Lindsay said: ‘Now they must bestirred up, because we’re not getting any bloody fish’. He’s getting reallyworked up about it. And Joe and Aub trying to get it over and done with.

Well, Lindsay has two goes at it and he says: ‘That’s it for me’. So he sitsover there and he’s got a cowboy book, and that’s it for him. And so the thirdtime it went up, Old Aub said: ‘Well, that’s it for me, there’s no fish in thislagoon’. Dad said: ‘Well, that’s funny that, because I always thought this placehad plenty of fish’. But then the kids started crawfishing, so they’re catchinga lot of crawfish. Oh, he said: ‘Wow, we’re going to have a big feed ofcrawfish’. Which we did. And then he showed them how to clean thisgoanna and cook it. So he used to do things like that, and it’s just as if hewanted to have the kids around him a lot, you know.

We just knew that he was always there if anything went wrong! We’d justhave to ring him up and say: ‘Come and get me Dad’, and he’d be there. He’dalways come across to see if we had food in the house. And when Rosie andLindsay were in St George, he’d always be going up to try to coax them tocome home. He always had his truck full of kids. All the kids. Landrover fullof kids, sitting on top of one another. And then he got that way that he hadwhite kids and all. He’d laugh and say: ‘Oh, look, this is too much’.I wondered how Dad got the patience, you know, to have all the kids. Mysister- in-law Rosie used to say, ‘Old Mick, he’ll look after them. He’ll takethem under his wing’. And they knew Dad would protect them. They knewthat they could bank on it.

Building Pressures


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 87

Page 106: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

5Confrontations, 1960s

This decade was an intense, formative one for Isabel. It witnessed events of deepdistress and a rising sense of tension. But Isabel also felt growing confidence that sheand her community could challenge the racism of the town.

Isabel had often talked about these events of the 1960s when she first came tolive in Sydney and was trying to explain to me and others why it was so urgentto make changes in Collarenebri. Much later, when she was recording for this book,she would usually recall episodes of her earlier life piecemeal and out of sequence,as memories crowded in on her. She planned to come back later and rearrange theminto the order in which they had happened.

But this group of 1960s stories was different. Isabel arrived at my house oneday in mid 1999, for what turned out to be the last recording session we were ableto have. She was excited and eager to get started because, she told me, she had satup the night before working out exactly how this part of the story should go. Shewanted to explain how confrontations had educated her. So we got started record-ing and Isabel dictated the core of this chapter virtually fully formed.

‘I really want to talk about all those confrontations we’ve had to have.You can’t think what a terrible feeling it is when you’ve got to argue thepoint over something. And you know that everybody is thinking: “OhChrist! Here she goes again”.’ Isabel 1999

Tension was rising in Collarenebri by the late 1950s. The full employment of thedecade had allowed Aboriginal people a degree of economic independence which had


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 88

Page 107: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

previously been difficult. There were already changes occurring in the pastoralindustry, such as the increasing use of machinery, which would mean that eventu-ally there would be fewer jobs. But there was still plenty of work around while thewool boom continued. The sense that Aboriginal citizens were missing out on thebenefits of the strong rural economy had not only angered Aborigines themselves.Urban campaigners had begun to pay attention to conditions in country towns, andin 1957 a union-funded deputation visited nearby Walgett and made inquiries aboutdiscrimination and poor housing for Aborigines.1

The response among Murris in Collarenebri was cautious. Mick Flick hadwarned Isabel: ‘I reckon you don’t want to get mixed up too much in this mobbecause you don’t know who they are or where they come from. If it was black fellasI’d understand, but these white people involved there, that’s what’s got me mixedup’. But the persistent colour bar in Collarenebri continued to enrage Murris andthere was a growing air of defiance among them. Isabel remembered the late 1950sto have been the time when Murris started to stand up to police harassment; whilethis brought heavier charges against themselves, they persistently asserted ‘they don’town us!’ As Isabel’s children and nieces and nephews began to grow up, it began toseem intolerable to her that this new generation would have to face the same suffo-cating racism which she had experienced as a teenager.

A major entertainment focus in Collarenebri was the local picture show. MarkCutler had run an open air theatre for many years. Aboriginal people were notprevented from attending, but they were seated in the far back of the viewing space,



The Liberty Picture Show in 1998, faded from its glory days of the 1960s.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 89

Page 108: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

without chairs, and a long way from the screen. Isabel remembered having gone tothis picture show only twice as a teenager. In 1955, Mark Cutler opened a new,indoor picture show,2 grandly and ironically called The Liberty. The Aboriginalpopulation was now booming with many children and teenagers fascinated like therest of the town by the images they saw in the movies. The price of their tickets madea good profit for Mark Cutler, but Aborigines found they were still segregated in thenew building.

When we went to the pictures we always knew that we would be lined up andwe got in the certain little section. All the blacks were herded down the frontand all the whites at the back. We were right under the screen—there wewere, screwing our necks up—they even had ropes around us. That kind ofexclusion in the picture theatre went right on till 1962. Until I said it wastime to cut the ropes!

You have to fight for everything, everything you want you had to fight for.So that was one of my first fights. How it happened was the girls wanted to goto this picture, Barbara and Lubby. It was one of those great big shows—BenHur or something like that. Lubby would’ve been about 11 and they’d justdone their first Communion at the Anglican Church. Oh yes, if you would’veseen those two girls every Sunday morning. And our little sister used to beready and Barbara would still be dragging the chain, and she’d be out the frontsaying: ‘Every Sunday morning this happens’. Every Sunday morning she’swalking around. And we’d be saying: ‘Well why don’t you go along byyourself?’ And she’d say: ‘Barbara will get cranky then’. She was such a dearlittle thing. They were all churchgoers—Barbara and Lavinia—they nevermissed Sunday morning at the Church of England . . . they were confirmedand all. And they used to sing with the old fellow that owned the theatre.

Now those girls wanted to go and watch Ben Hur, but they knew theywere going to get pushed into the seats under the screen. And sure enough,the usher came up to them when they tried to sit in proper seats and said:‘Come on you’ve got to move on. You’ve got to get in your black seats, wherethe ropes are’.

Now I was there and I felt hurt for their sake. I think that’s whatprompted me to question that. I said to the usher: ‘Hang on, you bring yourmanager down here. Bring the boss down’. And he wasn’t able to do that, soI went up to the boss, Mark Cutler. And I stood in front of the ticket officeand he said: ‘Look, I’ll talk to you in a minute’. For a while they didn’t wantto react. So I kept standing there in front of the ticket office, and by then mysister-in-law Isobelle was there too. The two of us, making trouble!

And I said to this old fella at the ticket box: ‘I want you to come and fixthis. Take these ropes off! What do you think we are? Our money is as good

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 90

Page 109: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

as anyone else’s and we want to sit where we want to sit’. I was terrified whenI stood up there, but I said: ‘Look, my sister and my niece go to the samechurch as you and we should be treated the same as everybody else’. And mypoor little heart, I don’t know how it stayed in my chest, but it did. Eventhough I said it as calmly as I could, I was so sick within myself.

I heard my own mob saying: ‘Oh God, she’s making us shame . . . ohGod!’ And then one of the Stallworthys and someone else said: ‘Good on youIsabel. It’s about time that happened’. I thought: ‘Oh well, somebody doescare’. Here’s my own mob saying: ‘Oh God . . .’ but they were afraid ofconfrontation too. And then old Mark Cutler could see I was just going tostand there and keep standing there. Sometimes I think if he’d waited just alittle bit longer I’d have gone away. But then he said: ‘Oh, all right, you cansit anywhere then!’ And that’s what happened.

The next morning the minister came down to see me and he said to me:‘You know, I wasn’t aware of what you raised last night. I wasn’t aware that youpeople had to sit in those roped-off sections’. And I said: ‘Oh weren’t you?’And he said: ‘No. I want you to know that I disagree with that. And we’ll talkabout it’. I said: ‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore’. And he said: ‘Well I’llgo down and talk to him’. I said: ‘Oh well, he said we can sit wherever we likenow. Whether the people will want to sit like that or not . . . well good show.I don’t want to talk about it anymore’. Because I had this dreadful feelingabout it.



Lubby and Barbara dressed forchurch around the time thatIsabel and Isobelle broke thepicture show colour bar.(Photo: Barbara Flick)

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 91

Page 110: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But I went down there the next morning to Mark Cutler’s shop. I’d gonethere to buy a box of matches just to see how he was going to treat me afterthat. And he was just as cheerful as ever. He said: ‘Oh good morning Isabel.How are you today?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m real well thanks’. He said: ‘Whatare you going to buy today?’ I said: ‘I’ll buy everything in your shop . . . no,just a box of matches’. And he starting laughing. I admired him for treatingme no differently to the way he’d always treated me.

It’s important to see how to use something like that. In a confrontationalthing like that an issue was dealt with and that was it. That was the end of it,you know. We didn’t have to do that anymore. But most of the people todaystill do the same thing, they’ll sit in the little section where they’ve alwayssat, and I’ll go and sit somewhere else.

I said to my grandkids the other day: ‘Well, I won’t have much to leaveyou, but at least I’ll be able to leave you some part of my life’. In this book Iwant to make sure I’ve got a photo of the Liberty Theatre, because it’s one ofthe things that figured in changing my life, you know. I was terrified whenI stood up there that night, but I did it because I was hurt for the kids’ sake.

And I think a lot of people can’t understand that that bitterness didn’tstay with me. I think the bitterness about us not being allowed to go to schoolstayed a long time. But things like standing up at the picture show helped memake the change in my life. And so they were the people that directed me towhere I am today.

Barbara Flick has written about how these events looked to her when she was 10:3

Barbara: When my Aunty Is teamed up with Mum she was a force to bereckoned with in the small conservative town of Collarenebri . . . Myfather was a shearer and spent most of his time on the track working orlooking for work. So it was Aunty Is and Mum.

In the [early] 1960s, these two women took on the establishmentand desegregated the picture theatre at Collarenebri. The picture theatrewas divided into two sections. One for the whites and one for the blacks.I didn’t understand why. It was a strange feeling to see all the white kidsfrom school walking past us with their noses in the air. They knew whatsegregation meant. It meant they were better than us. Didn’t it?

So there we were, divided by ropes. The theatre owner and his assis-tant would walk around and if they found us (they sometimes did) sittinglow in the white fellas’ seats, they would belt us on the head with theirtorchlights.

Then Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston came to town. The wholetown was turning out to see it. Mum and Aunty Is decided it was time

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 92

Page 111: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

for political action. They stood at the small ticket window anddemanded the theatre be desegregated. Troublemaking blacks? Wasn’tthat what he called them? Well they told him that they would block hispatrons and prevent them from purchasing their tickets until the ropeswere taken down. There they stood. Defiant. Two black women in thatcrowd of whites. Talking calmly. Can’t you see how proud they were.Their heads held so high.

This may seem like a small thing to you, but in Collarenebri in thesixties it was a big event. This was the way that Murri women tookresponsibility to try and make a more equitable society for their childrento live in. This story makes my heart big and full. Tell us again Mum,Aunty Is, tell us again. And the lights in their eyes show the pleasure.

As Murris started to demand access to the town’s services and entertainments, thediscomfort of many white townspeople re-emerged, once again in the form of accu-sations that Aborigines were a threat to white people’s health. The target was theOld Camp on the police paddock on the Mungindi road, where it had stood since1924 and which had offered Isabel such a sense of security. One of the goals ofCollarenebri’s white population during their strenuous campaigns to keep Aborigi-nal children out of the school in 1938 had been to have the whole Aboriginalpopulation removed to another town like Brewarrina where there was a Boardstation. This plan was abandoned on advice from the local police because all themen were fully employed in the immediate district and would lose their steady workif forced to move. Since then, the population at the Old Camp had risen significantlyto 175, swelled by ex-Angledool families moving away from the oppressive mana-gerial control of Brewarrina into which they had been transported in 1936. Townanxieties surfaced late in the 1950s with an accusation that the Murri camp waspolluting the water running downstream towards the town. Doreen Hynch jokedwith Isabel in 1999:

Doreen: ‘Well they say they moved the camp from this side to down theother side because we put disease in the water. Oh dear yes, but they hadthe hospital pumping its sewage and things like that in before the watergot to the town! But you had no say in those days. Nobody would standup and talk!’4

The camp residents were shifted unceremoniously in 1960 to a piece of reserve landon floodprone low ground on the Walgett side of the river, a long walk across thebridge from the town and much further away from the Block than the Old Camphad been. The conditions on the new reserve, called the Wollai by Murris, wereidentical to those on the Old Camp: people built their own houses from flattened tins



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 93

Page 112: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

and there was no water supply or sewage service when the camp residents weredumped there. A year later, the Welfare Board recruited the Collarenebri ApexClub to volunteer their labour for the erection of an ablution block with three coldwater showers, a tub and a tap, which then constituted the only running water onthe Wollai from 1961 till after 1975.5

Not long after, Isabel’s young sister Rose had unexpectedly married JimFernando, a local man who already had a family with grown-up children. The tensionsurrounding their relationship in Collarenebri led them to decide to leave, heading forthe distant fruit-picking town of Leeton, where they reared a family and worked formany years to buy a property. Isabel missed Rose intensely and carefully saved all theletters, cards and clippings which recorded Rose’s life and her children’s doings.

As a community in which poverty and ill health were common, death camefrequently and affected many people among the close-knit Murris in Collarenebri.The need to travel for work, and the continuing interest Murris took in travellingaround the region to keep in touch with people and places, meant that death fairlyoften occurred away from home, and yet burial ‘at home’, in the Murri cemetery inCollarenebri, has remained very important. So the cost of funerals often includedthe high cost of transporting bodies home, and for many families in precarious finan-cial positions, this was crippling.

During 1962, a death like this occurred and, as often happened, the commu-nity chipped in and the cost of the funeral was eventually covered. But Isabel startedto think about a way that families and the community as a whole could build up theirown capacity to cope with sudden and expensive funerals. She talked it over andgained strong support from some people and later in the year they launched a funeralfund. They needed to raise a body of capital and they needed to convince familiesto join and make regular contributions. Neither of these was easy. But this handfulof people began going from door to door, as Joe remembers well! Soon they workedout other ways to raise money, from street stalls to a percentage of the takings in thebingo schools held at different people’s camps or on the Block. In many forms, thefuneral fund has continued to the present, and years later Isabel wrote about itsbeginnings when its management was being reviewed in the 1980s.

In 1962, one of our people passed away in Tamworth, and the cost to havethat funeral here in Collarenebri was £400 at that time. We went door todoor in this town to collect that money and I can assure you that that wasn’tan easy thing to do.

However it was the start of my struggle to get people to think aboutsetting up a funeral fund and I had the support of a few other people. Butthere wasn’t many because such a thing wasn’t easy to even talk about! Muchless talk about having dances, street stalls and raffles to raise the money weneeded. Those people were Josie Thorne, Linda Hall, Isobelle Flick—my

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 94

Page 113: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

brother Joe’s wife—Doreen Hynch, Walter Stallworthy, Nookie Ryan and theReverend Roy Randall, and many more of our people who have since passedaway. As we went on, we worked harder and harder. Those people involvedhandled the funds with absolute honesty and respect. And we got moresupport as people were able to see the benefits of such a fund.

No one could possibly know the hurt I felt from time to time, when I hadto say: ‘No because you are not in the fund!’ I will never be able to shut thosetimes out of my mind. However, we built that fund up to £1500!

In 1963, the Flick family was hit by a series of tragedies. On the Block, as in thecamps, there was no electricity. The only sources of light other than the fire were fatlamps—milk tins which burnt a wick and were fuelled with fat rendered down fromsheep. Kerosine was also used for irons and fridges. In many Aboriginal communi-ties living under these conditions, there were frequent serious accidents with fire.

Early in the year, Joe and Isobelle’s daughter Barbara was minding a baby ather grandfather’s house. She told me the story years later, remembering that it wastwilight and all the other kids were playing outside to catch the last of the light. Thebaby needed a drink and Barbara carried it inside to the kitchen, lighting a fat lampto see in the dim room. Mick was lying down in the upper part of the house, bootsoff, resting after supper. Suddenly the belt of Barbara’s dressing gown trailed intothe lamp and caught fire. She had time to throw the baby to her cousin Ben who wassitting reading in the doorway, then she struggled to reach the water in the rain tankat the side of the room and to tear off the burning clothes. But the flaming belt madeit impossible. Her grandfather reached her, skidding on the lino floor in his socks,and wrapped her in his blanket, but the cloth was burning so fiercely that the flameskept bursting to life again. Barbara was severely burnt despite Mick’s attempts tosave her, and it was not thought that she could survive. She was kept in Collaren-ebri for some days, so gravely ill she could not be moved, and still remembers theagony of being bathed to clean her wounds. The family attributes her survival toArchie Kalokerinos’ dedication in the days before the ambulance could take her,with Joe and Isobelle, on the long drive to Sydney.

The doctors at the Children’s Hospital announced that Barbara was out ofdanger, but that she would not walk again. Her parents reluctantly had to return toCollarenebri, where their baby, Karen, and the rest of the family needed them too.Barbara began the long and painful months of recovery in the Children’s Hospital,often needing to be anaesthetised to have dressings changed, receiving skin graft afterskin graft, and being confined to a wheelchair. She was surrounded by children in thewards each day, so she doesn’t remember feeling lonely, and the nurses were good,giving her the run of the ward once she had surprised them all and stood up to walk.

But she was a long way from home, and it was especially important for her tohave some familiar faces. The Murray sisters from Collarenebri, Bertha and Myrtle,



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 95

Page 114: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

were maids at the hospital and shared a house with Hilda, a white woman who wasa hospital cook. So Bertha and Myrtle would drop in often with treats for Barbarafrom the kitchen. The town of Collarenebri sent her a box of toys for Christmas, andvisitors from home would drop in whenever they came to Sydney and keep her intouch. Out of the blue, as it seemed to Barbara, Rosie Lamb came and asked whenBarbara could go home. With a flurry of phone calls and some fast organisation, shewas put on a train with Rosie as her escort to finally take her home.

But by the time Barbara reached home, life there had changed forever. Theaccident had left Mick Flick devastated, worrying that his grandchildren’s fondness forstaying and keeping him company had contributed to Barbara’s injury. He tried tolimit their time with him, but his grandchildren refused to leave him and were alwaysthere through the winter, looking after him as much as he looked after them. When hesuddenly fell ill himself late in the year, he was surrounded by his family.

Dad’s little house was in the middle of the Block. And we had a little topcamp, middle camp and bottom camp set up there, all around his camp. Andthis is where the older kids would be allowed to stay over there with him.After Barbara’s accident he made a rule then, he wasn’t taking that responsi-bility, or so he thought. But they still all moved over there anyhow. Youcouldn’t rouse on them in front of him or anything, because he could neversay no to them. Even when we lost him he had kids staying with him . . . theywere trying to wake him up.

But it happened so suddenly, none of us were prepared for it. He said oneday, ‘Oh gee, I didn’t think I’d be here this morning. I thought I was dead lastnight—I thought I was gone’. And we said, ‘Well if you’re sick, Dad, youought to go to the hospital’. But he said, ‘No, I want to go down town—I haven’t made a will, I want to go down and fix up a few things’. And wethought he was joking, but he said, ‘I don’t want you to laugh about this, butthis is something I should have done. And I just haven’t done it’. And we justsaid, ‘Now, look, Dad. Don’t worry about that today. Today’s Saturday. Thinkabout it Monday’. ’Cause we could see by then that he was quite serious. Andon the Sunday morning we found him at home, dead in bed. He died in hissleep from pneumonia.

Well, the RSL committee came up and said, ‘We’ll handle all the funeralarrangements’ and . . . we just went along with that, because we knew a lot ofpeople’d be happy about that. We still thought about the times when Dadwould remind us that he was treated differently, because he was Aboriginal.But we always had our instructions that there wasn’t any point in us cryingand going on. That was one of the things he said, ‘I want you to promise methat you won’t go on like that, and you’ve gotta accept the fact that’s the endof my life, and when I was born that was the beginning. And you have to look

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 96

Page 115: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

at life like that’. And even though it was a very hard thing to do, I think wedid that very well. We were able to say to each other we carried out that wish.Just exactly as he said, you know.

So the RSL organised it and what was involved in the ceremony. He wasgiven a full military burial. A guard of honour and all that. We had a churchservice for Dad, I think the RSL talked to my brothers about the church andthey just decided, oh, Church of England will do. Dad never really practisedany religion. He never ever encouraged us to go to church. If we wanted togo that was all right.

But that brings us back to our cemetery. No religion separates you. You’renot buried in Christian portions. We’re buried in the family unit there.There’s a small section of people that are Christian, but at large, I think thatwe have a spiritual sense all around us. I think our church is all around us,really. I always feel that that’s how we’ve always been and it’s been our spiri-tual directions.

Then we started to think about his grave. At our cemetery, people havegot different ideas of decorating different graves. Their own family style. Thatpersists, even now. It’s carried on from the past—some of the people alivetoday don’t know who the people buried in some graves were, but they knowthat they were their people and a part of their family because of their type ofdecoration, or where the graves are, and so they carry on the same kind ofwork. I think, myself, it was a combination of two things. First of all it’s aboutidentification, it kept in mind which family you belonged to. And then Ithink it meant something to be working to make that particular grave looknice—it was a labour of love, shown in a lot of the work.

Different people have different needs. I think about the very first graveto be here in this cemetery—and it’s reported to be one of the Mundy family,which is one of the main families, descendants, to go back a long way. Andthis boy’s name was Hiram Mundy. And he was reported to have been fouryears old. And the people at that time lived on the lagoon and his motherwas a young mother who’d just lost her first child and she wanted it closer toher so she could spend as much time as she could there—and they say thatshe did spend most of her days there. And that took the graveyard from theold one, which is deeper in the scrub, further from the lagoon. Working onthe graves helps us to cope with death, I think. We get a stronger inspiration,I think, we get a lot of spiritual strength from the fact that we still have acloseness to the person whose grave we are working on.

I’d known about the cemetery from when Granny Fanny first showed itto me and explained how people looked after the graves. But I hadn’t gone upthere too much until Dad died. So we didn’t really notice a lot of what otherpeople were doing. I think it happened—once you lose someone—the need’s



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 97

Page 116: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

there—it needs to be done. And I think that’s what throws everyone intobeing able to do this themselves. They know that it’s their responsibility.

People often wait a year or so after a burial to start work, mainly to letthe grave settle itself. Some people like to do it earlier than that and thatmeans that they have to do a lot more work, and more often, because thegrave is settling down all the time. And sometimes that’s what people needto do—I think to help us to adjust to that death.

We finally felt that we needed to get in and really start to do it—to burnthe bottles like they did years before, to make crystalled glass pieces to coverthe grave. There was my sister Clare, and myself, and my sister-in-law Isobelleand my brother Joe. We looked at the bottles that were on the older gravesand we thought, ‘Oh, we can do that’, and we started this great process oflearning how to do it.

We used to make this big fire. We went about it all in the wrong way. Wedidn’t ask anyone, we just thought we could handle it. So we used to makethese big fires and throw the bottles in, and they’d all turn out black and theones that didn’t turn out black and burnt would be all melted. Oh, we musthave gone through this process on every weekend for about four months, justtrying to get this process to come to us. Nothing was happening.

One day when we had this great fire going and one big piece of coal—fire coal—was out on the side, and Joe stepped right on it with the sole of hisfoot. He stuck it in the cold water, he was dancing around and he was goingto give up on it. He had to go and get his foot bandaged up and went out towork with a bandaged-up foot.

It was a couple of days afterwards that Granny Ada, my sister-in-law’sblind grandmother said, ‘Gee, you must have a lot of bottles up there now . . .how are you going burning the bottles?’ Isobelle said, ‘Oh, look Gran, we’vegot a fire going and then . . .’ and Granny Ada said: ‘Do you just throw thebottles in, then?’ And we said, ‘Oh, we’ve got a big fire’, and we thought wewere doing all the right things. She said, ‘No, that’s not the way you do it.You’re supposed to dig a hole’.

‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got a hole, and we throw all the bottles in and make abig fire on top of it and . . .’ and she said, ‘Oh no. That’s not the way’. Shesaid, ‘You’re supposed to make the fire, let it burn down, then you’re using allhot ashes and hot coals after that. So you put your bottles in and you haveyour cold water there, where you can dip them straight into the cold water.Just try it like that and you see what happens’.

So we finally got the idea of how to start off doing it. And it still took usa long time to get the temperatures right with the fire and the temperature ofthe water. And how long you leave the bottles in the water. You quickly dipthem in and out.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 98

Page 117: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But it still took us a long time to really get them right—well sometimesnow we don’t even get them right—but we can say we’re pretty close to beingqualified to do that now. And we try to learn the other young people, becausewe said, we had a terrible experience trying to learn it. I don’t know how we’dever have picked it up if Granny Ada hadn’t started to think there was some-thing wrong because we were burning so many bottles.

It helped us a lot, working on our father’s grave. I feel it helped us toaccept the fact that he didn’t just die and go off and leave us. He left us a lotof valuable things to continue to do. He left us not ignorant to death. He toldus that he wanted us to accept his death as the other part of his life. That wasthe end of his life like it’s the end of everyone’s life, and to accept it assensible people. He wanted to remind us of this as we listened to his churchservice and—and it was very hard for us, because those were his instructions.He didn’t want us crying and really feeling that he’s gone away and left us forno reason.

He left us a lot of direction. I’m sure he felt that if we got into a situationwhere we needed a friend—we could think back to situations in our liveswith him, which would help us overcome it. And we did. That really didhappen to us all through our lives.

Within a year, another strong older member of the family, Sylvia Walford, died.Her granddaughter Barbara wrote:

Barbara: Nanny. Sylvia Walford. My special protector. She would wakeme late at night to feed the possums Sao biscuits and water. She taughtme to fish. She took me to the circus. She kept my school work. Shewrapped me in a cocoon and talked to me about the magic of the river.Her death taught me about mortality.

And then only a year after Sylvia’s death, Sylvia’s mother died. Ada Woods,although blinded years before by German measles and very elderly in 1965, hadcontinued to be a central figure in the family network. Despite her blindness, shehad taught her great grandchildren how to sew rag dolls and pillows, and how to finda good spot along the river to fish. Granny Ada, who had taught the families to burnthe glass for their graves, was now herself buried in the Murri cemetery.

Isabel and her grieving family found those years difficult, but the growing confi-dence of the Murri community in the town was an important source of strength.The school was a place of intense meaning for Isabel’s generation who had been keptout of it or made miserable within it, and now they were not going to stand quietlyby when their own children were treated poorly by teachers or other students. So theschool once again became a place for fighting out the battles of small town racism.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 99

Page 118: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The Flick children who were at the school gratefully remember their parents’presence to back them up, but they laugh now too at the sinking feeling they used toget if they saw their mothers marching towards the principal’s office in their gooddresses. They would know their mothers were going to take on the headmaster oversomething and they’d think, ‘Oh no, not again!’ But Isabel played a special role atthe school because she went to work there as a cleaner which allowed her to actuallybe on the grounds to observe problems and step in to help children. Barbara has avivid memory of seeing her Aunt sweeping, quietly and unobtrusively, but able tosweep her way close to where any trouble might be brewing. Isabel’s very presenceoffered security and support, and increasingly she would intervene and speak up onbehalf of any Murri children she saw being victimised.

I was cleaning in the hospital a bit then, and also sometimes in the hotel,before I started at the school. You had to join the union, and I didn’t mindthat, I went straight into it anyhow. We joined the Miscellaneous Workers’Union. The only place where I wasn’t covered with that was at the hotel,when I was cleaning there. Of course I wouldn’t be a bloody barmaid . . .they’re flat out giving black fellas barmaids’ jobs even now . . . But I’ve hadsome jobs in my time, I’m just about jack of trades, an all-rounder.

Then when I started as cleaner at the school, it was back with the Missosagain. Seven years I did that. Seven years. You’ve got to be there to start righton six. You’d finish at nine. You’d go back at two and you finish at six again.And it was pretty heavy work all the time.

But it started to seem like it was good for the kids just to have anotherMurri around. For a while you know, I don’t think I’d really say anything ifI saw something happening to black kids. Then I started to do that and theybegan to realise that, yeah, I was going to say something. For instance, oneday I watched them doing the headlice check. And they’re going through allthe black kids’ hair with a pencil, and I’m supposed to be sweeping and thenI stopped, and I thought: ‘I’ll just sort of watch this now’.

And they went through all the black kids, and then there were other kidsthat were black, but they didn’t identify as black, and the teachers just wentpast them. And I walked over and I said: ‘Why didn’t you check those kidsthere? Because those kids are cousins of my kids. And so I would think you’ddo them too’. And he just said: ‘Oh look . . . no, Mrs Flick, now we don’twant any trouble’. Straight away just ‘didn’t want any trouble’.

So he got these two little black girls sitting out the front there, all shameand crying. I said: ‘I take offence to that. So I’ll take them home to theirgrandma, because that’s who they’re staying with’. And he said: ‘No, theyusually go home when the others go home’. And I said: ‘No, I’m taking themhome now. I’ll get a taxi and take them home now’. And so, little things like

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 100

Page 119: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

that I began to do. And I guess they started to become aware that I would saysomething and take it a bit further, you know? So I did take the little girls homeand from then on, if they did head inspections, they did it very quietly becauseI didn’t see it anymore. So it was a very hard job, but an interesting job.

There were all kind of issues at the school that I started to talk up about.But the one time where I didn’t handle it was when one of my kids once gota cut across the hand with a ruler—a great big welt across his hand. So I’mgoing up there to talk to this teacher about it. And you know, I had a sickfeeling because I knew they were going to work it out somehow. I walked into that teacher and I said: ‘You fucking try and hit me with that ruler!’ Andit was terrible. I just lost it.

That’s the only time I remember losing it. Then the headmaster came in,he was my boss because I was the cleaner at the time. I said: ‘I don’t care whatyou do about this, but I’m not having you or anyone else belt my kids. I don’tbelt them’. He was so apologetic. And he was so afraid I was going to get thecops!

I was sorry after that I didn’t take action against that fellow because myson had a real big mark across his hand. And I’ve thought since: ‘Why thehell didn’t I? Because I was serious about it . . . But the headmaster was soapologetic then, he said to the teacher: ‘This kind of thing can’t go on’. Andhe really got stuck into him. But the teacher of course was deputy principalso I thought later it was just a set-up anyway.

But that was that feeling of confrontation. Over any issue that youwanted to bring up, the feeling of confrontation was always there. You couldnever sit down and talk about the issues. The welfare officers when theycame, everybody had to get their act together so they were knowing whatthey were saying. And they might only be just coming to do another surveyor something and asking questions. And everybody is wondering what thehell the questions were for and who’s done something now?

Isabel was extraordinary in that, by 1966 she could steel herself to carry out aconfrontation if she needed to, but she could also negotiate through an issue with thepeople on the other side. The school authorities and the Parents and CitizensAssociation began to draw increasingly on her knowledge and skills. Isabel could seecommon ground with the school principal and with white parents on the appallinglylimited resources which were available to all the school students. She joined withthe local Anglican minister and the owner of Collymongle station to petition theMinister for Education to provide urgently the better classrooms the school needed.6

The irony that Isabel Flick, who had not been allowed to enter the school in 1938,was now a spokesperson on its behalf, probably did not strike anyone at the schoolexcept Isabel herself!



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 101

Page 120: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But we did a lot of things against the odds. Like when we started to havedances and things, oh, we had some great dos! I think we got started whenyoung Aub was about five, in 1965, because that was when I got the cleaner’sjob at the school. So we were all raising kids and I was working nearly all thetime. The oldest of my kids would have been about 13 or 14. Joe andIsobelle’s older kids were around about the same age and then we’d have acouple of kids on the tit and dragging in the pram and all.

And in between jobs and stuff like that, I’d find out that Roy and Joewere raffling something. Now I’m not real trusting and I’d say, ‘Well someonehas got to get those raffle books off them. I don’t know what they’re raffling,and where the money is going’. And it’d turn out to be towards anotherdance!

I remember when Isobelle and Joe were first getting home, and she wascoming there from Walgett see, and Dad said: ‘Oh, this is going to be yournew sister-in-law, they tell me’. Because we used to go out gambling together.And he said: ‘Oh well, I’ll tell you what, there’s no doubt Joe’s a good worker.He’ll look after you like that’. But he said: ‘You know, he can get you in a situ-ation where he’ll get you hung, this bloke, you’ve just got to watch him’.

Lindsay and Rosie never went to these dances much, they used to keepmore to themselves, but we’d get drawn into everything—Isobelle and Joeand me and Aub. And Aub wasn’t real keen to get mixed up either you know.But Joe would go down and he’d meet up with Roy and that’d be it, they’dorganise something. And the next thing they’d run into Freddy Mason andthey’d say: ‘Oh, Fred’s going to help us and this other one is going to help us’.

So we’d book the Town Hall and Roy and Joe would want everyone tosit down and eat. And we did that a couple of times, and then we said: ‘No,we’ll just make sandwiches. You can cook all that stuff’. By that time we wereable to stand up to them, you know. It was supposed to be one job for eachperson. But Josie said: ‘I don’t think it’ll work out like that because this oneisn’t going to be in it now, and somebody else isn’t . . .’ Roy and Joe had justnominated people that was going to be working there, but those people justdidn’t want to know any part about it all. Or we’d get some friend or otherinvolved and then she’d get the shits about some little thing and we’d begoing around to her place, to make sure it was right with her again. And thenwe’d find out her old bloke didn’t want her to do anything, say because hewas older than her and he was getting jealous. And later on we were able totalk about things like that, you know, but a few women couldn’t do it becausethey weren’t allowed.

And on the night it’d be just us working. Everybody else having a ball ofa time and we’d be there just ourselves trying to watch that there’s no grogcoming in and all that. Josie Thorne and I would be scared stiff someone was

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 102

Page 121: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

going to break a window or something was going to be broken, so we couldn’tenjoy ourselves. And Isobelle would be saying: ‘Who kicked this dance offanyhow? Oh, Joe . . .’ she’d say. ‘Roy and Joe! They went around tellingpeople about the dance. And now here we are, no good trying to pull upnow!’ And she’d laugh and say, ‘Pop used to tell us about that! Well I’m notgetting mixed up any more. This is the last time for me’. But sure enough allthe dos would come off okay.

We were on our toes all the time with Joe and Roy, because you’d neverknow what they’d come up with next. But one day I said to Josie, we still hada good time organising things! And the kids used to look forward to it too.See, everybody would go—the kids and the grown ups—and they’d havelittle beds made up in the supper room part there, and they’d just put the kidsdown to sleep there. And the taxi drivers would be waiting for their fareshome after. So it all worked out well. And yeah, it was good times.

When we look back on it, we started to organise it better and we used tohave ‘the belle of the ball’, and all that kind of stuff. It got that we would havetwo every year. And they’d be big dos.

Some white fellas came, just a few, but not a lot. And some others wouldcome and make a donation at the door. And we thought: ‘Well, that’s goodenough’. That was really good. And sometimes a taxi driver would say: ‘Well,I’ll take the book of raffle tickets, because I’m going to the club tonight. I’llsell something at the club’. And we used to get a lot of help like that then.

Sometimes what we made on the tickets we’d put into the Far West orthe funeral fund. Sometimes it mainly just covered the expenses! But then ifwe had anything left over we’d say: ‘Oh we’ll give it to the hospital’. Andthen when one of the matrons was leaving we’d organise a do. Then anothertime when they needed a fridge for the nursery we ran a dance and we boughtthat. And that was a good do, too. See, there was the little local band,Gordon Kennedy, and Vicki, his wife, she used to play the accordion, and heused to play the guitar and sing. So they’d be singing to us. It was quite a bandand quite an event. And a lot of Walgett people used to come over and theyused to really liven it up.

Just things like that we used to do. It all made the organising we did lateron for the Legal Service and Land Rights look pretty easy! And these dancesand giving money to the hospital or whatever was all happening at the sametime that we still had segregation, eh!

The political scene in the state was changing rapidly, with a number of legislativechanges which significantly altered the context in which Isabel and her communitycould hold social events like their dances. In 1961, the Federal electoral laws werealtered to ensure Aborigines could vote in national elections. Aborigines in New



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 103

Page 122: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

South Wales had always legally had the vote in the state and therefore in the federalelectorate; but many people had been either confused, misinformed or intimidatedagainst exercising their rights during the long decades since the Commonwealth haddenied Aborigines the vote in 1901. And others had refused to vote in protest atcontinued discrimination. Of far more immediate impact, the laws prohibiting thesupply of alcohol to Aborigines in New South Wales had been repealed in 1963. Itwas now legal for Aborigines to purchase and to be served alcohol, although clubsand publicans still controlled completely who was allowed to drink in which areas,if at all, on their licensed premises. Dress codes replaced race as the tool used toexclude Aboriginal patrons. Urban interest in rural conditions was escalating. In1964, an Australian Aboriginal Fellowship delegation visited Walgett to inquire intoconditions there, and in 1965, the ‘freedom ride’ came through Collarenebri.

The Freedom Ride bus went straight through Colle and everybody wasshitting themselves! The news about what had happened in Walgett wastravelling like wildfire. The white fellas had nearly tipped the bus over justout of town. Murris in Colle were saying: ‘What are we going to do if theycome?’ And I said: ‘If they’re going to Moree they’ve got to come this way’.They could have gone Wee Waa way I suppose, but then the white peoplestarted saying to us: ‘You fellas don’t want to get mixed up with them’. And Iremember one old woman, Dorrie Combo, she said: ‘You know, these whitefellas have been saying to me: “You don’t want to get mixed up with thempeople on the bus” ’. And she said: ‘How can I get mixed up with them? I’m59 now. I live at the camp, they’re not going to come over there looking forme’. And I said: ‘Why don’t they want us to get mixed up with them anyway. . . because they’re only talking about what’s happening. They’re telling thetruth’. Now old Dorrie she had a couple of run-ins with those white fellas. Butat that stage I wasn’t in it. I’d had Dad warning me against trusting a lot ofwhite people.

That’s why I admire old Harry Hall,7 you know. He was a shearer, but hewas prepared to stand up and he really stuck in there. He went out andfronted them in the town after those Freedom Rider fellas went. And I thinkabout that now, looking back I think: ‘Gees, a lot of these other fellas whorun organisations now would never ever put themselves out like that’. Thenwhen he started to build that hall for the Foundation8, he came over toColle and he was asking for donations. He’s going door to door, I thought tomyself, ‘I wonder if this fella is going to the white fellas’ places too?’ So Iwatched him and he went through every house in Colle, the white fellas’houses too. So you’ve got to admire him. They built that Foundation inWalgett. It was pretty important in its day, it showed that Aboriginal peoplecould do things.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 104

Page 123: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

When the Freedom Riders came out, everybody went quiet, you know,everyone was scared I guess. And one thing old Henry Denyer said to me was:‘What are you going to do now, Miss?’ And I said: ‘I’m not going to donothing’. Because I didn’t know how he was going to react, or anyone, youknow. Because I knew I wanted to know more about how we could do someof the things that these Freedom Riders were saying. Some of the women justdidn’t want to have anything to do with them, they said that they wouldn’teven let them go over to the Reserve if they came there. So I thought, well,I couldn’t interfere with that because I didn’t live on that side of the river.Even though I belonged to Colle, I didn’t live on the Reserve where it is now.But I think that was one of the beginnings of me getting involved.

And later on, Henry was the fellow that more or less pushed me intogoing to meetings and getting involved in that way. I used to try and shy awayfrom it. But he used to say: ‘There’s nothing stopping you from coming to themeeting, you know. You can come with me. You come with me and I’ll soonshow you the ropes’. Because he was in everything. He was in the Apex Club,or whatever was there. And President of this and member of that. And so Ithink he took me along to one of his Far West meetings in 1965, and that’show I started to get involved in meetings and committees.

And then, when the Parliamentary Committee came out there in 1966,well he reckoned it was time for me to meet politicians, and know thatthey’re just men. I remember that old fella said to me . . . ‘Wake up toyourself, these fellas talk about you all the time, they talk about you Murrisall the time’. He pushed me over to a tree there, old Henry, and he said: ‘Oh,the big Wanda9 is coming up again tomorrow or next week, they come up totalk about you Murris again now . . . they’re going to talk about the greatthings they’re going to do. You know what you’re talking about. You justcome along with me and I’ll show you how to handle them’.

And he said: ‘They’ve got a couple of old hens with them, writing thingsdown. But I’ll show you how to handle them’. And he did. Because there wasa lot of us all standing around and one of the questions was: ‘How do thepolice treat you?’ And the police were all there. And Henry said: ‘Oh well,they don’t get it that easy’. And then a couple of other women said: ‘You’reright there too, we don’t get it easy’. Then Henry said: ‘But that’s not theplace to talk about it here, they’d rather talk to you by yourself. Then theycan tell you exactly what goes on between these mob over here and them’.And so he set that up so as we could talk about the curfew and all that. Eventhough people were dreading it when they went to that meeting, ’cause theywere still scared stiff that the cops would retaliate against them.

And I remember, another one of the first meetings I went to with himwas the Parliamentary Committee investigation into Aboriginal living



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 105

Page 124: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

conditions. And I’ve thought back over the years after about how thosepeople must’ve treated him, too, because as soon as he said a couple of thingsthey’d look at him straight away and look at each other because, you know,he was making it a bit hard on them.

Like, when this big politician said: ‘Well, I think if we got into buildingsome houses and we did this, and that would look all right there, and . . . ’Then Henry said: ‘Oh, but that mightn’t be what the people want. See, you’renot giving them a chance either, you’re saying what’s good for them, they’renot saying that’. I think that’s the first time I heard someone saying: ‘Yes, yousay what’s good for these blacks, but what do they want?’ When you look atit, you know, people are still saying things like that . . . they’re still playinggames.

Henry himself was in a hard position. He actually said to me one day:‘When these big politicians come here, they send us a letter, all us business-men, to tell us they’re coming and that they want to talk about the Aboriginalissues as well—so what can we do for them?’ He said: ‘Sometimes when I saysomething I get offside with my own mob, see. That’s why I need you to startcoming along and you saying something. You’re not silly, you know whatyou’re talking about. And you know what’s happening’.

Because at that time we’d been saying things about segregation in thehospital and in the picture theatre and stuff like that and he was becomingaware of that. And I wouldn’t blame him if he thought: ‘I don’t want to getmixed up in that, let them do it’ We’ll never know what he was thinking, butthat was how he started saying to me: ‘Look, you know old Mrs Combo, thereshe is, she’ll say what she thinks. You have a yarn to her, she knows a lot too’.And I used to go and talk to her a lot. And she’d say: ‘Yeah, you know, weshould be saying something about the way they treating us at the hospital andthings like that’.

As Isabel became more confident in speaking up on behalf of the Collarenebri Murricommunity, she retained a strong respect and affection for her genuine allies likeHenry Denyer and the Stallworthy family. But she was cynical about the newfoundattention she received from some other white people.

But it was hard too when we started to talk up for our mob. I reckon, whenyou go back to people like, say, Gran’s people. My great-grandmother was atribal queen, Queen Susan at Welltown, eh? And that family had a differentkind of treatment, because she was treated a little bit better than the otherMurris because she was a key person, you see. And then when you lookthrough it all and you follow the line, white people was treating other people. . . even right to me . . . differently, you know? Because people still say: ‘Oh,

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 106

Page 125: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

but you’re not like those other people’, you know? . . . Yes, they give youthe shits.

The Flick families on the Block moved their houses around after Mick’s death.Many Collarenebri families feel strongly that after a death the person’s belongingsshould be burnt and their dwelling either dismantled or at the least smoked, withburning Budda bush, to cleanse it of pain and protect the living from any ill effectsof contact with the dead. Mick had advised his family not to burn his belongings andhis camp after he died, and they had tried hard to follow his wishes. But each familyended up living in a different place on the block of land over the next year or so.Isabel arranged for a loan from the Welfare Board so that she could build a houseon the Block for her family and her mother Celia. This house had a living room,separate kitchen/dining area, two bedrooms and internal bathroom, a verandah witha laundry at one end, but an outside toilet.

Joe and Isobelle had moved across the gully and built another tin house on apiece of high ground which their brother Jimmy called Wildflower Ridge. There wereoften visitors to the existing houses so camps were built around the land as neededfor members of the family network. The Block was detached from the main Murricommunity, particularly after the Old Camp residents had been moved across theriver, and so it offered some people a respite and refuge from conflicts on the Wollai.

Isabel’s strong involvement during later years in speaking out to protect womenand children from family violence was deeply rooted in her community and familyexperiences in Collarenebri.

I’ll never forget the ones there at home in Colle. There was about five womenthere leaving their husbands, and dragging their kids all over the place. Andending up at my place. One night old Aub came home and he said: ‘Twenty-three kids in that lounge room sitting on that floor, eating there. I countedthem’. And of course, I got defensive straight away. And I said: ‘Oh did you?’And I said: ‘Well, I wasn’t going to kick them out’. And the old bloke said:‘But you know, I only work out there on the station. I don’t own it’. And I hadthe cheek to get really upset over that, and I said: ‘Well, your sister there too,you know?’ And then we’d have their friends and their friends . . . There wasoften people running away . . . So my house was a real refuge.

The Murris of the northwest needed the Royal Far West Scheme. Set up in the mid-1930s to meet the needs of isolated white country children for seaside holidays aswell as medical treatment in Sydney, the scheme’s support had been increasinglydrawn on by the families with the heaviest burden of illness, the Aboriginal com-munity. When Barbara had to be in Sydney for so long in 1963 and 1964, the FarWest had offered support, and by 1965 one of Clare Flick and Geoffrey Mason’s



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 107

Page 126: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

children was in need of continuing medical treatment. So Isabel’s involvement in theorganisation at Henry Denyer’s invitation was strongly supported by her family andthe wider Murri community. They began running street stalls selling scones and ranraffles to support the Scheme. In 1966, Karen Flick remembers being taken as ayoung child on a train trip from Pokataroo to Merrywinebone with her family allloaded up with boxes and bags. Once there, her mother and aunts set up a stall andsold food they had cooked to workers harvesting wheat, all to raise money for theFar West.

Isabel continued to go to Far West meetings and travelled with Clare to annualFar West conferences in Sydney. Her articulate expressions of the concerns of herfamily and community was noted in the caption of the press photo of Clare andIsabel taken around 1969: ‘Mrs I. Flick of Collarenebri added emphasis to thediscussion on underprivileged Aboriginal children’.

Back at home, Isabel began stepping more often into the day-to-day conflictsshe saw taking place around her. She was frequently caught up responding to policeactions and to the use of the courts against Aboriginal mothers in order to removetheir children.

Things like what happened to Robert Murray in the sixties happened all thetime. He was drunk the night before but no one knew, he just went home andwent to bed. He used to live on his own and the next day, then, he was homecooking his lunch and the next thing the copper comes along and says:

Isabel Flick


Isabel and Clare at the Sydney conference of the Royal Far West Scheme, c. 1969. Isabelhad addressed the meeting, bringing ‘added emphasis to the discussion on underprivilegedAboriginal children’, following Dr Barry Nurcombe’s address.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 108

Page 127: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

‘Come on . . . I want you, you smart arse!’ And he said: ‘What are youwanting me for Constable?’ . . . because he was feeling pretty good about it allbecause he wasn’t drunk . . . ‘Yeah, what do you want, Constable?’ He said:‘Come on, you get in here. I’m arresting you. You were drunk last night . . .Now, I heard you was drunk . . . come on!’

And then I walked over there and I said: ‘But you can’t arrest him becausehe was drunk last night’. And he said: ‘Oh, yes, I can . . . Oh, yes I can, Isabel’.And see, Mum was the only one that walked over as my witness. She cameover . . . and I said: ‘No, listen, this is not right. You can’t do that to him’. Justwhen this copper started to realise, yes, I had a witness . . . and I could see hewas thinking along those lines, he said: ‘Well, Robert, if I’ve got to come overhere today’, and of course, Robert started to get a bit cheeky then, see, andblow me if he didn’t let loose and he kicked the bloke . . . My God . . . So thereRobert was charged then with hitting a policeman. Now Robert was onlyabout six stone-something, and this big copper, he’s about 16 stone.

Anyway, this assault charge comes up on Robert, this was a couple ofdays after that, and Robert is just sent straight off to Narrabri to do sixmonths. Then the police in Narrabri must’ve got a bit suspicious about this,and he rang this Church of England minister here at Collarenebri at the time.And the minister came over to me and said: ‘Oh, listen, I don’t want to getmixed up in this, but a police sergeant rang me from Narrabri and he asked ifhe could speak to someone that might want to talk to him about Robert.Now, I don’t want to get mixed up in this, so I told him that you’d ring thereand here’s the number you can ring, reverse the charges’.

So, I rang the cops in Narrabri and got onto this fella, and he said: ‘Yes,I just want to ask you something. How good is this Robert as a fighter?’ I said:‘Oh, I don’t think he’s much of a fighter. Why? What’s he done now?’ Andhe said: ‘No, I’m just trying to work this out. What kind of trouble does heget into?’ I said: ‘Oh, well, look I don’t know . . . just getting drunk’. And hesaid: ‘Well, he must be a real nuisance because . . . and he must be able tofight a bit because be bashed this copper up and he’s 16 stone they tell me . . .and Robert is about . . . what would you say he is? I reckon he’s about sixstone wringing wet’. And I said: ‘Well, you’d be right there with the weights.Yeah, well, as for Robert not fighting anyone, I don’t think Robert could fightanyone’.

And he said: ‘Well, that’s my opinion too. I want to work with you’, andthat’s one of the ways that I got involved in things. Because he said: ‘Look,somebody has got to say something, so I’ll come up there. I’m coming upthere to have a look at that station’. And he came up one weekend and hestarted to tell me how I must talk to people like the minister to be able to helpRobert stay in the town because they were going to kick him out.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 109

Page 128: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

See, they could work the law to move you on or bring you back orwhatever. And so I think that was one of the cases that I got involved inwhere, if he was staying at his mother’s place, and I was to see that he stayedat his mother’s place they couldn’t do anything about making him go some-where else, and the minister had to be brought in as a witness.

And so, my job was getting to talk to the minister. Now, see, I could getaround the minister, and the minister didn’t want to have anything to dowith it, of course. So when I rang the policeman again I said: ‘No, theminister doesn’t want to have anything to do with it’. And he said: ‘Oh, yes,I just rang him and I asked him to do a special favour for an Aboriginal personin his congregation. And he agreed to do it’.

So there was all kind of things happening. People were trying to dothings and you know, it didn’t get a lot of support. But I suppose all the wayalong there would be people that wanted to say something and couldn’t sayanything because that’s the way the law was, and that’s the way they’d governthe Aboriginals, I suppose.

By this time, I started to feel really good about myself and how I couldhandle it. I knew that I could call on other people and that was good too.There was an incident, which I suppose played a part in me becoming confi-dent. This woman had just had twins on the Reserve. It was summertime andwe only had tin huts. She’d had the ten days in hospital and then went homeand I suppose she was finding it hard to get the babies to settle down and thenthey developed diarrhoea and, of course, then the Welfare was on them allthe time.

At that stage we had almost weekly visits from the Welfare officers, eventhough they had to come from Moree. Anyway, these two babies were put inhospital and they were kept in hospital for a long time and they were aboutto send the kids away. They said that she was a bad mother and that she hadnever reared any of her kids. But in fact she had, she’s reared all of her kidsbefore that. And then they said that she never used to visit them in thehospital. Well, she wasn’t allowed to. And I was able to say to her: ‘Look, youcan go and see your babies. They’re your babies. You insist that you see them’.And she said: ‘Oh, no when I see the doctor he says: ‘‘You better see thematron’’. When I see the matron she says: ‘‘Oh you’ve got to see the doctor’’ ’.

I suppose they thought they were doing the right thing by the babies, too.But then we worked it out that they’d given her some milk when she wenthome, and the Welfare officer wrote it up that she’d sold the milk around thecamps, which she hadn’t done. So this was building up the case to send thesebabies away.

Now just a couple of years before that, I’d got a loan through the WelfareBoard to build my own home and I used a lawyer in Walgett. Now he

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 110

Page 129: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

happened to be there this day when they were taking these babies into thecourt, and I just went around to see how the mother was going at the court.The lawyer came over to me then and said: ‘How are you going?’ and startingtalking to me. I told him I’d just come over to see how Mavis was. ‘Her littleboys are going to be sent today.’ ‘What do you mean?’ he asked and I said:‘Oh, the Welfare has got a case against her with the twins and they’re goingto send them away’.

These poor little fellas were in their bassinettes, real done up too. Iremember they had blue suits on with these little bow ties. And poor Mavisstill wasn’t allowed to be near them. Now to get this lawyer to think about it,I said to him: ‘She wouldn’t have much of a chance on her own anyway’. Andthis was long before we had legal services.

So I could see he was thinking it over and then he said: ‘I’ll tell you whatI’ll do with you. I’ll have a look at this case’. I said: ‘We wouldn’t have anymoney. She wouldn’t have any money to pay you’. And he said: ‘No. I’ll do adeal with you. One day you might hear of something that might pay me. Andwe’ll do it that way, eh?’ ‘Okay’ I said, and then to Mavis I said: ‘God, Mavis,this fellow might do this case, you know?’ ‘Oh I don’t know . . .’ she said. Wehad no confidence of course. And when we went back in, he was talkingto people.

We could see him going in and out and talking to different people. Andwe were saying: ‘Look at them, they’re all putting their heads together’. Wehad him in the same pot as the others. And she said: ‘Who’s he?’ I said: ‘He’sa fella helping me with my house. We had to have a lawyer’. So when hecomes out he said: ‘Listen, would you be prepared to go in the court anddispute what they’ve said about the milk and about Mavis not rearing herkids?’. I said: ‘Yes’. He said: ‘I’ll get it adjourned and at the court, then, I’llhave you as a witness’. ‘Okay.’ And that happened then. When it came tocourt again, he came around to the school where I was working as a cleaner,and he said: ‘It doesn’t look as though we need you to come in. They’vequashed that case’.

So, just having a lawyer to argue those points made all the difference. Hemust’ve just said: ‘Well Isabel said this is not right. And that’s not right orwhatever . . .’ and let them know that I was going up there. And the goodthing about it then, I had to work with those people at the hospital againbecause I had sick kids and I was going back and forwards too. And I had togo back there, but they never treated me any different. I said to Mavis: ‘We’vereally got to be careful because these people mightn’t see us. We might be sickand go there, and the Welfare will be on you from now on to make anothercase’. And so we always had to be prepared for another lot of confrontations.But it never happened . . . Those kids grew up and sometimes I used to joke



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 111

Page 130: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

with them: ‘Oh you’re getting into trouble again. I should’ve let them takeyou’. And those boys say: ‘Yeah, you’re the one, you should’ve let us go . . .’

But the thing was that you always had to be ready for a confrontation.And it wasn’t a good feeling, I can tell you. All those kinds of confrontations,you think what a terrible feeling it is when you’ve got to argue the point oversomething. And you know that everybody is thinking: ‘Oh Christ! Here shegoes again’. And I’ve had this said to me: ‘God Isabel, not again’. Butsomeone has got to do it. I learnt how much respect I got from people after Iwas able to say to them: ‘I don’t care what you think’. And I was starting tofeel more confident how I was dealing with it. Of course, I had some goodtrainers. I was getting mixed up with so many different people—black andwhite—that I started to gain my confidence from outside of Colle.

What was happening at the hospital was still really worrying us, and wethought things might be better with Murris working there. So about thistime, Joe and I stuck up for two Aboriginal nurses to be taken on. There weretwo Aboriginal girls from the Reserve and we’d said to them: ‘If you reallywant to have a go at nursing you’ve got to go to the secretary and you’ve gotto ask for a job. The matron and the doctor told me that there’s four nursesaides’ positions there, so you should be pretty right. They’re willing to trainyou’. Right. So they go up there.

Well the secretary made all kinds of excuses for these two girls—‘I thinkyou should apply for Walgett because that’s a training hospital . . . Moree is atraining hospital’ . . . And so this went on for a while. We used to tell themevery week: ‘You go up there and ask that man for those jobs, because weknow they’re still vacant. Those jobs are vacant. The matron and doctor aretelling us. Okay?’ The girls used to do that—every week they’d go up thereand ask for a job, and that they particularly wanted to do nursing. He said:‘Look, I can make arrangements for you to go to Walgett or Moree if you like’.But the girls stuck to their guns and said: ‘No. We’re not in for that’. Anyway,the Annual General Meeting was coming up soon and the matron said: ‘Well,the AGM is coming up why don’t you bring it up there?’

So, sure enough Joe and I go around telling everybody: ‘Now we’ve allgot to go to this meeting’. And who turns up? Me and Joe and my sister-in-law. It comes to the part in the meeting where they said: ‘Now is thereanything else we can do about our hospital to improve our hospital service?’Joe said: ‘Yes. We think that you’re being very racist towards us, because twogirls want to do nursing here and . . .’ ‘Oh righto . . . ’

And so, the minister was on the Board at the time. And he said: ‘Did youwant to move a motion Joe about that?’ Joe said: ‘Yeah, I want to move amotion that these two girls be given an opportunity to work at the hospitalas nursing aides’. ‘Oh right. Can we have a seconder?’ ‘Oh yes, I’ll second

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 112

Page 131: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

that’, I said. And, oh God, then he wanted to see if it was going to be carriedor not. I don’t think it could’ve even been considered. No one wanted to goon . . . and three little hands go up. So you can imagine that. The board wasfull of just town people. We were the only blacks there. Nobody wantedtrouble, see, everybody was scared of getting in trouble, black and white.I don’t know whether we ever thought about that.

Somehow, someone said: ‘Are you accusing the secretary of being racist?’And Joe said: ‘Yes. Of course I am. He can’t be anything else’. The secretarygot really cranky and went on about having good Aboriginal friends. So wesaid: ‘Oh well, we can’t do anymore’. We walked out. On the followingTuesday the girls got the message that they could start work on the Monday.They probably thought: ‘Okay we’ll put them on. They won’t last long’. Andwhat happened was that those girls stayed there for years, and they were asgood as any of them. We had to get clothing—stockings and all that stuff—they were probably thinking that we couldn’t come up with all the require-ments that they had. But we did.

And then we thought to ourselves, now these girls have got to hang ontothese jobs. And it was so good that they stayed on. One stayed on for sevenyears. I forget how long the other stayed. But they were there through all thecrisis times, and they were really good workers. And they used to go to workall done up nice and all that. So in a way you win little ones . . . you can’t winthem all.

During 1969, Isabel met a group of university students who had come to Walgetton a fact-finding tour for Abschol, the organisation which had taken up many ofthe strategies of SAFA [Student Action for Aborigines] which had organised theFreedom Rides. These students included law student Peter Tobin, who reported onhis return about the normal but seriously discriminatory practices of the police inWalgett and Collarenebri.10

I met Peter Tobin when we’d gone to what I think would’ve been the lastmeeting of the Aborigines’ Progress Association—the APA. They had abranch there in Walgett and I’d only gone to about two before that and thiswas the last meeting that they had. Peter was still studying law and he cameto this meeting and asked everyone to have their say about what was happen-ing to them everywhere. After it was over, I was sitting on this verandah andPeter came over and he said: ‘You know, I just find it so hard to believe allthis’. I said: ‘Oh Peter you’ve got to believe it’. And he said: ‘Oh yeah, I’m notsaying you’re telling lies. But I’ll tell you what as soon as I get my degree I’llcome on out and work with you’. I said: ‘Oh well, that’s one way of having ago at it, eh?’ And he said: ‘Yes, we’ll see what kind of difference we can make’.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 113

Page 132: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And sure enough, he did too. Well, he was a great man, eh? So that’swhen I first started to meet and trust white people, you know? Because he wasthe first fella who sat down and talked about what we could do. He’d say: ‘Ohno, they can’t do this’, and ‘They’re not allowed to do that’. But they do.Everything was cut and dry before they went into court. He knew before theywent into court just about what they were going to do. Everybody that wascharged, nearly always got 30 days. And that’s to clean up the yard at thepolice station and put in more plants in and make their garden and that’swhat they used to do. They’d have a garden all over the police yard—pumpkins and everything growing there. And it worked out when you lookedat it, one lot of things out of season would be ripped up by these prisoners andthen the new garden gets put in by the next prisoners . . . all the work, wood-cutting and stuff.

The economy had begun to change dramatically in the northwest by the late 1960s.Jobs had dried up in the grazing industry, where mechanisation had cut down thesize of the work force and subdivision had cut the size of the properties. Aborigineshad moved into the seasonal harvesting circuit, including bag sewing for the wheatcrops on the western slopes, but again new technology, like silos, was beginning toeat into those jobs as well. Cotton was first planted in 1969 at Wee Waa just south-east of Walgett. In its first few years there was plenty of seasonal work available insummer after the spring planting. The job involved ‘chipping’ the hardier weeds outfrom between the rows of newly sprouted cotton plants, which would give the cropmaximum access to sun and water. Aborigines formed a major part of this work-force of ‘chippers’, gathering from across the west and from the coast to work on anhourly casual rate for contractors. This was a new way to work for people who hadpreviously been union members in the highly organised shearing and pastoralindustry; but many people went down to Wee Waa to try their luck in this new job,and pick up a bit of spare cash, particularly just before Christmas. The chippingseason saw hundreds of Aboriginal workers converge on Wee Waa from all overNew South Wales, many of whom retained a degree of suspicion about strangers.Some of the largest fights in the cotton camps were between groups from differentregions of the state. But these camps, as well, saw the beginnings of new personaland political relationships—for example, between people from the north coast andthose of the northwest who, separated by the Great Dividing Range, had previouslyhad little social contact.

Isabel’s memory of her experiences on the cotton field and her actions to chal-lenge the conditions there around 1970 give a glimpse of her role in the network ofAboriginal activists—mostly men at that stage—which had developed across thelarger north-western towns of Moree and Walgett. A similar network was develop-ing just to the west, between community leaders in Brewarrina, Goodooga and

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 114

Page 133: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Bourke, and the pattern was being repeated on down the Darling through Wilcan-nia, Broken Hill and Menindee. Campaigns like that around conditions and wageson the cotton fields were one of the ways these local networks linked up to allow theregional co-operation so evident in the next few years. One result was the creationof the first rural branch of the Aboriginal Legal Service, set up in 1973, with PeterTobin as its first lawyer. Based in Brewarrina, he served the area from Collarenebriand Walgett in the east through Broken Hill and right on down the river to Daretonon the Victorian border.

A lot of the Murris went across to Wee Waa, thinking they were going to geta lot of money out of it, but when they got over there they realised theyweren’t going to get much money anyhow. But it was the social contact, andthey’d play cards and sing all night. We used to have some great times there.All the young boys in that age group went. A lot of kids used to jump ontothat too. And Harry Hall was very active too then keeping an eye on issuesall over the place.

Well that’s how we started to find out who we could talk to about theconditions in Wee Waa. There was a lot of us involved in that and a lot whostarted to get angry about it. And I’ll tell you why, because we were onlygetting a dollar an hour. They used to work ten hours for $10.

I thought I’d just go over and have a look around. And me and Aub wentover, with Josie and Roy, we decided we’re going to earn a quid, see what it’sall about. Well, I wanted to see what it’s all about, but they wanted to earn aquid, see. So we go out and when we got out there I could see that the weedswere well over your knees and the cotton’s only a couple of inches high. Andhe’s showing us what ones you’ve got to chip out. ‘And you’d be better offpulling them out with your hand,’ he said. And I said: ‘You’ve got to bejoking’. And he said: ‘No, I’m not joking. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’swhat we’re getting paid to do’. Anyway, my old man and Josie and Roy said:‘Come on Isabel, come on, let’s get into it. Don’t make a fuss’. And so theycould see I was getting a bit agro about it. And I said: ‘No, no, no. Go on, youfellas can go’, I said. ‘How much you say you’re going to pay us?’ He said:‘Look, ten hours, $10 a day’.

And I said: ‘So . . . I don’t believe this. So you reckon that’s good wages?’I called out: ‘Eh Aub, you think that’s good wages?’ ‘Oh, come on look, we’reout here now . . .’ So away they went. And they’re crawling through this! Youcould see them crawling through the bloody weed. And it was like a bigmistletoe thing. You couldn’t see them half the time, you could only see thegrass moving. And so I sat back, I was leaning against his truck. And he said:‘You shouldn’t even lean up against the fucking truck. I bought you out hereto work’.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 115

Page 134: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

‘Oh well, fuck you.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to lean up against your truck’.And so I went and sat down in the shade of the truck tray, and I said: ‘Soyou’re going to whinge about me sitting down in the shade of your fuckingtruck now?’ And he said: ‘Well, I don’t like it’. And I said: ‘Oh well, you canmove the truck then’. Look, all day he rowed with me over the fact thatI shouldn’t have got on that truck to go out there.

And I said: ‘Well why don’t you just run me back to town? Because I’m notgoing to be fucking silly like that and walk through that stuff’. And he said: ‘Ohno, you wouldn’t’. He said: ‘You’re one of them trouble makers’. And I said: ‘Ididn’t think I came out here to make trouble. I thought I was going to earn aquid. But I’m not going to work for a dollar an hour’. And he said: ‘Look, every-body else is doing it. Everybody else is quite happy. You’re the only one that’sputting on a big turn. Look at everybody else’. And sure enough everybody’sgoing. All you can see is the bloody grass going . . . the weeds waving like that.

And I’m sitting there, and I said: ‘Well, what a stupid lot of bastards’.Every now and again I’d say this, you know. And he’d say: ‘I don’t want tohear what you’re fucking talking about’. And he’d walk round the other sideof the truck. So we spent the day rowing, see. Anyway, when the day was overand, oh, I could see them coming back and they were buggered. And I said:‘I just don’t believe this, you know’.

They were all standing up, lining up, getting their little money, signingfor it. And I’m standing there saying: ‘You say all you fellas agree with thisone dollar an hour stuff?’ He said: ‘Well look, we’re having a good old time

Isabel Flick

Cotton chippers’ camp, Wee Waa, c. 1972. (Wee Waa Echo.)


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 116

Page 135: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

here. We all get together’. That’s all the Murris wanted you know, for us tojust get together.

And, oh, we used to have big gambling games and everybody from every-where was there. And it was just a great time to meet up really. And theymight send two or three kids out and so they’re getting their little $30 a day,or $40 a day stuff. And anyhow, I went back to Colle then. I left Aub there,and Josie and Roy. And anyway, I get in touch with Harry Hall in Walgettand old Lyle Munro in Moree. At that time they were both reps on theNational Aboriginal Congress.11 And I said: ‘Have you been over there?’‘Oh’, they said, ‘I just drove through’. I said: ‘I went out into the field. Andthat’s what it is, one dollar an hour. Working 10 hours a day. You’re no goodat going out for two hours, because you only get the $2’. And so that’s howthey started that movement then. You know, a lot of other people, fromBrewarrina and different places, they were saying the same thing.

And there was no accommodation. You were just jammed anywhere. If youdidn’t have a tent, well you just slept down in the flat. Or if you can, you mightget a caravan in the caravan park. But they were very dubious of taking blackfellas into the caravan park. We had a caravan . . . We had a little old car andwe got a little caravan. But, well, by the time you paid out your expenses for theday, you had nothing. So I said, ‘Bugger this! I’m off home’. But a lot of peoplestayed. And, as I say, they stayed for that community gathering thing.

So that’s when we started to make a fuss about it. Harry Hall and LyleMunro and young Lyle Munro and Billy Craigie and all started kicking up afuss and after a couple of years they called that strike.12 See, a lot of peoplewould just think it was only one or two in a group, but it turned out to be alot of people once they saw that someone was going to take it up.

And that’s when things started to get a bit better, even though the con-ditions haven’t changed that much now. When you look at the fact that theymight earn $80 a day, $80 or $90 a day, then they’re taxed, then they’recharged travel out in somebody’s vehicle. So their expenses for the day wouldtotal about $40. So really they’re only getting $50. And, well, by the timethey go and get their food and that for the next day, they’re not getting verymuch out of it. But they couldn’t pull out and do what they did before withthe strike because you’re not supposed to be out there. Most of them try toget a bit of extra cash on top of their Social, for Christmas. And so they’renot supposed to be out there. So you don’t get any union support again now.You wouldn’t get any support. They’re in a no-win situation.

But I’d gone over there a year or so before the strike just to see what it wasall about. And then a few of us started to say: ‘Now this is no good’. And theneverybody started to say the same thing. In those days we had a common thingbetween us. And that’s how we started meeting up down in the Foundation in



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 117

Page 136: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Sydney and we met the unions there. We used to hitch-hike, that’s how wehad to get around. If someone had a car, we’d put in a bit of petrol and traveldown that way. We were going to everybody. I think we started to go to anymeetings where we thought someone might listen to us, and they did. TheBuilders Labourers were one that was around. They all took it up then and asI say they’ve got some changes made.

So that’s really what started me big-noting myself. And I just sort of wenton from there. I started to get gamer and gamer and started travelling toSydney for meetings, you know. And the good thing about it was, we’d allpitch in and whoever had a car could go. Or whoever heard that we could geta ride if we got to Dubbo or wherever, we’d all head off there and we’d all belining up there and we’d hitch-hike to wherever we wanted to go.

There were just so many confrontations. After I went to Sydney in theearly 1970s—I’ve been on a lot of deputations—with land rights andwhatever—we started getting involved in finding out how we could get LandRights legislation into parliament. That meant we had to go right around toall the communities, and meet politicians and confront people really opposedto what we were saying.

But it was much harder at home because you knew you had to work withthose people the next day or the next week, or you needed their service orwhatever, you know? Yes, there was a real difference there. It’s attitudes,I guess, because racism is people’s attitudes. People have different attitudesnow. And a lot of those Collarenebri people just live in their own little world,and then all of a sudden if something happens in the town they’re all there.They know where they have to go and who they have to talk to, and it’s likea big family. And it’s funny to find that I’ve overcome all that kind of slur andstuff that used to go on. I used to feel so hurt sometimes when I’d hear themtalking about different ones having babies and even myself, when they weremaking snide cracks at you. And then to overcome it all and to be just ableto walk and hold your head high.

It’s funny that. A lot of Murris are very hurt about all these thingshappening and they will never talk to those white people again. Or you know,they’ll continually whinge about it. But today, when I go home I see thosesame white people and they’re so different, they’ve changed over the years.And I thought: ‘They had the problem. I didn’t really’. And that’s why I keepsaying all those things have made me a stronger person, because I can—without feeling really hurt about that now—I can think: ‘Oh well, ithappened and that’s that’.

When I think back and I can talk to those people who were like thatwith us, you wonder where they’re coming from over the years, and even now,they’re all on-call. Any emergency in that town, every one of them are

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 118

Page 137: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

committed people, you know? And I suppose that happens in all littlecommunities. But I often say that to people, when you’re in a little com-munity like that everybody has got a role to play and even if you knownothing about it, you can go there and someone will tell you what you’resupposed to do. We’ve had drownings and things like that and searches forlost people. And oh . . . lots of tragedies, murders . . . and everybody getstogether and always someone is doing something to support someone, youknow. And yet these are the same people who’ve had these confrontationsover the years, the same ones who wouldn’t let us into the school or into thehospital . . .

But then, it doesn’t matter how we look at it, non-Aboriginal people arereared in a different way. I was only just thinking about that the other day,because I thought . . . they were coming out from a military rule and everyonewas trying to find their place in society too, I suppose, just as we werebecoming aware slowly of what our status was in the community.

So, we all live under an act that governs us all, and then everyone wascaught up in it. Because I later spoke to non-Aboriginals there, and I thought:‘Gee whiz, this person knows so much about this town, why aren’t we . . . allof us, you know, recording what she has to say?’ But people seem to look ather as a little old gasbag and I even spoke to some of her family and said: ‘Youknow, we should be recording what she says, because she had the wholehistory of our town in her head’. I don’t know if that was ever done. But I’dlike to research that too, because that all fits into my life.

And when I look back, there were those people in that community thatcared, but they weren’t free enough to speak out because they’d become . . .you know, ‘nigger-lovers’ or they’d be seen in a different class then, I guess.And I suppose all my bitterness has turned into so much affection and whatI feel for Collarenebri and that area because I think it gave me everythingthat made me today, I reckon. You know, it gave me the opportunity to standup and say: ‘Hang on, this is not right’. And to start challenging systems. AndI’m still doing that today.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 119

Page 138: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

6Entangling the City with the Bush, 1972–1978

Isabel’s most complete recordings about her life covered the years until she leftCollarenebri in 1972. She recorded memories of separate events from later timesand kept boxes of letters and papers, which allow us to learn a lot about whathappened after that. But we don’t have enough to complete the story fully in her ownwords. So the main voice of storytelling at this point must pass over to me. I metIsabel when I was a student about a year or so after she arrived in Sydney.

The city had seemed a hostile place for Murris when Isabel’s children wereyoung. Isabel’s close friend Josie Thorne had taken one of her children toSydney for medical treatment in 1966. She wrote to Isabel on a postcardshowing the imposing and alien architecture of St Andrew’s Cathedral andthe Town Hall, about as far away from Collarenebri as you could imagine:

C/- Travellers’ Aid, Elizabeth St, SydneyDear Isobel, Well, mate, here I am stuck in the big smoke and hate every minute ofit. But Joan has four more tests to have. We have to go back on the fifthfor the last lot and I am hoping to get the results then it is costing afortune to live down here even though we are getting our board paid.How did the stall and the meeting go? I have been to housie a few timesbut couldn’t win any thing. We are seeing a lot of Sydney. Time is running out mate, Cheerio Love Josie


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 120

Page 139: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The difficulty of surviving Sydney when children needed medical treatmenthad been what made the Royal Far West Scheme so important for ColleMurris. It had been why they had put so much time into the stalls which Josiementioned, raising money for the organisation.

Yet things were changing by the later years of the decade. Not only weremore outsiders coming to Colle, like the university students who followed theFreedom Ride, but Murris were travelling further for work. The grazing industrycontinued to slow down, cutting out even more jobs. People were finding theyhad to travel longer distances for any sort of casual work, like going to theMurrumbidgee for fruit picking and to Dareton for the grape harvest.

Family matters became tangled up with these wider changes. Rose’s life inLeeton seemed very far away from Collarenebri for the family who missed her.But her new location in the fruit picking area made her home a link into thelengthening cycles of work travel which northwestern Murries were beginningto make. Ben Flick, Isabel’s eldest son, travelled there by train in 1969 alongwith others for the picking, a trek which had became more and more commonas work for young people became harder to find in the northwest.

Barbara had left already, winning a scholarship to complete high schoolat a boarding school in Armidale in the northern tablelands. Leaving foreducation was also becoming more common, although financial support to doso was very rare. Barbara struggled with loneliness in Armidale, trying tofocus on studying while she was still recovering from her burns and the exten-sive scars she was left with. But she soon had company.

Other Murris were leaving Collarenebri because they had had enough ofthe suffocating conditions in the small towns. The stronger job market ingrowing regional centres offered not just work but a way to escape. Isabel’syoungest sister, Lubby, chose this path out of the town she had come to hate.She left Collarenebri in 1966 to live and work in Armidale, which also gavesupport to Barbara while she was there. Lubby worked as a maid in theUniversity of New England’s Wright College, putting herself through a dress-making course at the same time and learning how to drive. Then she got amotorbike and really began to travel. She rode back and forth across theeastern half of the continent, and fascinated her family with stories fromplaces with fairytale names, like Daydream Island. Lubby’s relief at her escapecan be read in the letter she sent home to her mother, Celia, around 1969:

Dear Mum, Just a few lines hoping that you are well and happy. Well how are thingsgoing?

If you ever want to leave Colle just write and say, for I’m sure we canrent a caravan in another town. So Mum please get Isabel to answer for

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 121

Page 140: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

you. We could have a great time, maybe Isabel would come and stay withus too.

I’d love [to] live with you again, but not in Colle for there’ll neverbe peace in that hole.

Well Mum that’s about it so please think about it and write or get Isto write straight away. To my darling Mum,love LubbyXXXXXXX

Another chance of escape beckoned in the new industry of irrigated cottonwhich had started up just to the east at Wee Waa and Narrabri. While Isabelhad been angry at the conditions she saw there for Aboriginal workers, otherssaw the rising prosperity of the cotton towns as a place to make a new start,to create a fresh relationship between black and white residents, free from theshackles of the old grazing hierarchy of squatters and stockmen and maids.This was the hope that helped Joe and Isobelle Flick decide to move theirfamily to Wee Waa in 1969. And it drew others, like Arthur and Leila Murrayand, for a while, Roy and Josie Thorne a few years later in 1972. They allknew they would have to fight to build that new future, but they were willingto take the risk. They just didn’t know how hard they would have to fight orwhat the cost would be . . .

When Joe and Isobelle left, those still in Collarenebri felt their absencebadly. For Isabel the loss was intense. Joe’s energy and enthusiasm andIsobelle’s unfailing and courageous support had been an enormous factor inher rising ability to challenge the repression of the town. Without them,everything looked harder. The networks she had begun to build with peoplein Sydney began to seem like they offered a stronger hope. While her relations had moved to larger rural towns, Isabel began to look to Sydneyitself.

The education of her children was now a major question for her. Herfrustration with the schooling available in Collarenebri and in the highschools of the district had reached a peak with her sense that the schools werefailing her older children. Hostels had opened in Sydney offering a support-ive residential base for rural Aboriginal students. Isabel began to see this as away to escape the despair of education in the northwest and by early 1972 shedecided to take the chance and move. Ben was independent, now welladvanced on a high profile regional football career, playing with Narrabri andthen Bathurst, and he had married Lorraine Peters. Larry was working andhad begun a relationship with his future wife, Jedda Adams, although bothfamilies worried that they were too young. Larry and Jedda were defiant and

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 122

Page 141: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

so they stayed in the bush. But Isabel hoped the city might offer new oppor-tunities for Brenda, Tony, Amy and young Aub.

Her announcement at the school that she was leaving generated a flurryof organisation with a farewell supper organised by the Parents and CitizensAssociation at their regular meeting in April. Isabel collected a wholeswag of character references to arm herself against the nerve-wrackingtask of job hunting when she reached Sydney. Despite the intense pressurewhich she had experienced as she had tried to change the town, Isabel hadalready made an extraordinary contribution to the school and the com-munity. The degree to which she had established real relationships withsome white townspeople are clear in the warmth of the endorsements inthese references.

Dawn Stallworthy, then the hospital matron, wrote of the ‘Extremelyhigh sense of responsibility’ which Isabel brought to everything she wasinvolved with, while Peter Swane, the Anglican minister in the town, spokeof the privilege of working with her on the school P & C: ‘Isabel is respectedand trusted in this community and we are very sorry that she is moving on’.Archie Kalokerinos described her with insight: ‘She has a natural ability as asocial welfare worker, being able to spot problems, talk to people in all circles,and act in a practical manner to overcome the problems. She has been oftremendous value to the community, universally respected and there is nodoubt that she will be sorely missed . . .’

There were some Collarenebri people already living in the inner suburbsof Sydney. Vera Roach from the Murray family was one, linked to Isabel bytraditional kinship, and Bertha and Myrtle were still there, working at theChildrens’ Hospital in Camperdown where they had been when Barbara wasin the burns unit for so long in 1963. Barbara herself had returned to Sydneyto begin nursing training at the Children’s Hospital, drawn to the work by thewarm memories she had of the nurses when she was there as a patient. AndIsabel had now met up with a number of Sydney political activists, from theunionists she had been meeting with Harry Hall to the young lawyers likePeter Tobin who had come to Walgett in 1969.

At that stage, the greatest concentration of Aboriginal people was in theinner western suburbs, and so that was where the family headed. They strug-gled to find accommodation, camping around with family and friends for awhile in Bridge Road, Glebe, before moving into 102 Johnston Street,Annandale. Isabel began applying for jobs doing what she had always beenemployed to do, clean and cook. Like Bertha and Myrtle she applied forhospital work and was taken on at Royal Prince Alfred, just up the road fromthe Children’s Hospital. Isabel was to be a maid in the ‘assembly room’ of thekitchen, where the meals were put together to be sent to the wards.

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 123

Page 142: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel’s initial reaction to the job and to the city itself was a sense ofrelease. It was a new beginning for her. The work at the hospital, where shewas just dishing out food, was much lighter physically than the schoolcleaning at Colle had been. And the atmosphere was different. She felt thatthe pressure of constant confrontation was no longer on her shoulders:

Isabel: Yes that changed. Of course it wasn’t easy to get accommodation.But we didn’t come across the hostility so much. I don’t know, everyonetreated you differently than at home. I don’t suppose they had anythoughts about anyone, because they had so many different people—itmight’ve been that. At home you knew everyone, you’d grown up withthem and you had to face them next day or you needed to deal withthem, so having that hostility to you or confronting their attitudes wasmuch harder. I know we didn’t suffer that much in the city even thoughI always felt more comfortable in going to the Aboriginal MedicalService after that was set up because they had sympathetic doctors there,and people who cared about what they were doing. And that’s still thesame. Once people started to talk about setting up our own legal serviceand medical service, I think we started to feel a bit more confident thatwe could call on different people because there were people advising usabout legal issues and we were starting to get to know a lot of people likelawyers, and then we were feeling a bit more comfortable with what wewere dealing with.

Isabel Flick


Amy and Brenda’s babyBernadette at the rear of Isabel’shouse in Annandale, c. 1974.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 124

Page 143: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel arrived in Sydney just as the wave of activism of the past decadecrested in the emergence of militant shopfront organisations which wereindependent of government control. She was already familiar with the Foun-dation for Aboriginal Affairs, set up by white and Aboriginal activists inSydney during 1964 and the organisation on which Harry Hall was modellinghis Walgett work. And her involvement with the attempts to get betterconditions on the cotton fields had introduced her to Sydney unionists, manyof whom had a history of involvement in the more left-wing AboriginalAustralian Fellowship and in supporting the trips by unionists to Walgett andMoree even before the Freedom Ride.

But by 1972 many of the younger Aboriginal people who had come toSydney for education and jobs, and who had spent time at the dances andoffices of the Foundation, were becoming more interested in Americanmodels of urban community activism. The work of the Panthers in Califor-nia, for example, had met urgent needs by setting up shopfront agencieswhich drew on white professionals and students to support communitiesstruggling against racism and poverty. These young Aboriginal activists werebuilding on an urban movement which had already been established inSydney, so the outcomes did echo the American experience, but were alsovery home-grown responses to particular Australian conditions.

The movement away from small country towns had been happeningacross the state, and had brought many Aborigines to Sydney. Some hadfollowed relations into Leichhardt and other suburbs, but Redfern andWaterloo were often the first stop for the flow of rural immigrants in the1960s. Ken Brindle was one of the activists who had started organising socialfootball and dances for the newly arriving immigrants in the 1960s and whoended up challenging the ways local government and police had been tryingto control the growing Aboriginal population by harassment and brutality onthe streets.

Young Aboriginal law students and their lecturers worked togetherthrough structures like the Council for Civil Liberties and drew on the bodyof support built up by the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship. They began tomount challenges not only in the courts but on the streets themselves, withnight patrols of lawyers in Redfern to observe and report on police behaviour.Similar networks had begun to form between activist doctors, like FredHollows, and Aboriginal people in the inner urban communities, includingthose like Barbara Flick who were working in the health system. Campaignsagainst racism, like the Anti-Apartheid Campaigns against South Africansporting teams during 1970 and 1971 galvanised and educated a wider rangeof white students than had been involved before, leading to a larger body ofvolunteers to help staff the fledgling agencies which set up in the run-down

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 125

Page 144: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

shopfronts of Redfern to give free legal and medical aid to the Aboriginalcommunity.

So this was the scene into which Isabel arrived, a whirl of newly formedand energetic organisations, struggling to identify and address urgent legal andhealth needs with no funds and poor facilities. But what they did have was abody of enthusiastic Aboriginal people and professional and student volunteers.Some of them were young people Isabel had met in the bush, like the lawyerPeter Tobin, now graduated and still committed to working for the communi-ties in the west. Almost before she had unpacked the family’s scanty ports Isabelwas invited onto the committees that were setting up these organisations, reallymaking up the rules as they went along for organisations which had never beenseen in Australia before. They tried many models, and the traces of their exper-iments can still be seen in the way the organisations are shaped today. A formalstructure as a basis for an organisation seemed reasonably important in itself,particularly for those Aborigines with a union background, but it rapidlybecame a necessity when later in 1972 the Whitlam Labor Government cameto power at the Federal elections and for the first time promised substantialfunding to Aboriginal community bodies. But funds could only be handed overto bodies which were legally set up to receive government moneys.

A common early model was the co-operative, drawn from the contactbetween union and christian socialist traditions which generated TranbyAboriginal Co-operative College, an organisation which became increasinglyimportant to Isabel. This model had been tried out in Aboriginal communityenterprises from the mid-1950s in Queensland and in northern coastal NewSouth Wales and it was valued for its protection of the rights of all share-holders in the co-operative. It had been championed by Tranby’s ReverendAlf Clint because it seemed to reflect the egalitarianism of traditional andcontemporary Aboriginal culture. Another early model was the commercialcompany, and despite concerns about its ideology, it was seen as a quicksolution. The young lawyers who were volunteering to assist the fledglingAboriginal Legal Service organised it as a company; but they also tried towork out ways in which the complexities of company law could be mademanageable for the urban and rural Aboriginal communities which couldnow apply for funds to build houses only if they had a properly set-up housingcompany to hold the funding. The result was a body of ‘shelf companies’,empty but legal bodies which had already been registered and which could berapidly modified with a new name and a set of local directors to fit thecircumstances in any local rural community.

The learning demands were enormous for everyone on the committees ofthese new organisations: they not only had to develop a political and pro-fessional strategy for running a new medical or legal service but they had to

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 126

Page 145: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

learn the rules of company procedure and come to grips with the responsibili-ties of directors of companies, the rules of formal meeting process, and thefinancial dealings of major government departments. Union experiencehelped some people, but the community base of these organisations, withtensions arising from family differences and the competing loyalties of differ-ent areas of origin, was a very long way from a body of individual unionmembers. On top of this were the particular challenges for Aboriginal com-munity members on committees. Like Isabel, many of them had been deniedeven basic education in a racist ‘public’ school system. Now they were facedwith hiring, managing and firing a workforce of [mostly] non-Aboriginalprofessionals.

These few short years in Isabel’s life were tumultuous. She was faced withthe intense pressure on her family of urban life along with the exhilaration ofthe new and exciting politics of the period and the tough learning necessaryto make those organisations work. They not only had to deliver serviceseffectively but do so in a principled manner which would strengthen Aborigi-nal communities, not weaken them. While Isabel was immediately drawninto these new bodies—particularly to South Sydney Community Aid inRegent Street Redfern, then in the Medical Service and then at Tranby—shedid not have to take on major managing roles. Instead, she was an observerat close range, watching and learning and considering everything she saw interms of her experience in community organising in Collarenebri and hercontinuing close links with her family back there in the bush. Whether co-operative or company, these community organisations all faced the dangers ofcorruption, nepotism and the concentration of power into too few hands.The big questions she saw in Sydney in the early 1970s were just as relevantfor those rural communities. They were questions she was to grapple with forthe rest of her life: how could communities fight for what they wanted andthen organise themselves to carry out their goals in ways that not only gotthings done but were representative of all in the community—both sustain-able and democratic.

Isabel laughed years later about her rapid induction to Sydney politicsand her early caution with the political activists she met:

Isabel: As soon as I came down here I got mixed up in all kinds of organ-isations. First there was the South Sydney Community Aid, with thatgirl that got that Human Rights award, Vivi Kostanardi, for working withthe Greeks. And her parents had a café down there, not far from theSouth Sydney Community Aid. I did a little bit with them and that wasmore working with the people working in the churches, and they weretrying to see whether they could help Aboriginal people. And we used to

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 127

Page 146: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

go down there and nut out what we were going to do. And me andRichard Pacey were the only two Aboriginals on it then. And thenI think old Bob Mazza came on it.

When the Tent Embassy was being set up in Canberra, I went alongto some of the meetings where people would work out how they couldsupport the Embassy and they were talking about getting an Aboriginalflag. I used to try and go along to all those kinds of meetings then. ButI didn’t want to get mixed up with those ‘freedom fighters’ too much. Iwas a bit cautious about that at first, but once I settled in down here andfound out what it was all about, I often started to think: ‘Why aren’t weout there again?’ I think it should’ve been done on a yearly basis. Wemight’ve got somewhere then.

I think I had first become aware of Tranby in the late sixties, late1969, or 1970. It was one of my first visits down to Sydney and I wasstaying in Glebe, and I just sort of wandered around this way and the signout the front just caught my eye. There was three students from NewGuinea inside and I just knocked on the door and said, ‘Mind if I have alook around?’ And they said, ‘Oh we’re setting up co-operatives forAboriginals, that’s one of the things that the brothers are doing’. Andthey talked about some church organisation that I didn’t have a lot to dowith . . . but I kept hearing about Tranby, ‘Oh the church has got somekind of thing going for Aboriginals around here’, and I think Tranby keptflashing back into my mind.

Then in 1971, I dropped in and Lester Bostock was one of the firstAboriginal blokes I knew that was doing some voluntary work with thebooks. So I sat down and talked to Lester and I said, ‘Oh you know thissounds like a very good place, and if you could keep it so Aboriginalpeople are havin’ the most say . . .’ And he said, ‘I think that’ll come’. Bythe end of 1972 when I was living in Sydney, I started to come in moreoften. Kevin Cook was involved by then and I began to do a lot of thingswith Cookie. I was meeting all the different groups that were starting tosay, you know, ‘Hang on, we want to do things for ourselves and we haverights!’.

So I became involved in the movement in earnest and it was thenthat I saw other Aboriginal people coming down and we’d start to meetat Tranby. So often we’d all be busy going about our work at home andin our communities. We were trying to put it together down here inSydney so we could take it back there to home. All our knowledge andenergy was going back into our communities.

Kevin Cook had started to co-ordinate meetings. We needed thatco-ordination to say, well this is some of our plans that’ll work and we’d

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 128

Page 147: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

run with that. And a lot of our people become directors on the Board ofTranby, like Jacko Campbell. So after a while, we were not only justblacks sticking up for their rights, we became like brothers and sisters.Kevin had a way of putting us at ease in what we were doing, this is howI see Tranby and Kevin and you can’t isolate these two.

As well as her new friendships, Isabel caught up with young Aboriginalpeople whom she already knew from the bush, like Lynne Craigie fromMoree, who was living in Surry Hills with her husband, Peter Thompson,a non-Aboriginal archaeologist who had also grown up in Moree and whowas then working in the Australian Museum. Lynne and Peter, with Lynne’syounger brother Billy Craigie, were activists in the Sydney Aboriginal andanti-racist movements. Their tiny house in East Sydney was lined withposters of the Native American icons and the famous images of the BlackPanthers, and it was always busy with the Aboriginal students and friendswho had been the footsoldiers in the campaigns to stop the sale of theEveleigh Street houses, to protest about the South African Springbok toursor to demand Aboriginal Land Rights. Lynne was involved at the grass-rootslevel in the newly established medical and legal services, doing the nightrounds in the tough back streets of Redfern looking for Aboriginal people introuble with the law or in need of urgent transport to the emergency ward ofthe nearby Prince Alfred Hospital. Peter Tobin was a constant visitor and sowere other young white friends drawn into the networks by Lynne or Peter.

Some time early in 1972, Isabel met up with Paul Torzillo, a third-yearmedical student at Prince Alfred where she was working. Paul was alreadyvolunteer driving for Lynne Thompson on her night rounds and was beginningto learn about Aboriginal politics as well as health issues. Isabel rememberedbeing surprised by his interest when she went to an outpatients’ clinic where hewas a student observer, and she was amused when he was able to usher her infar more quickly than she was used to being seen:

Isabel: So, that’s where I met Paulie. I went to the hypertension clinicand so I was taken straight in! And that’s when we started to talk about,oh, all sorts of things. I suppose Paulie must’ve been a bit like I was withCookie, see. Cookie knew a lot of the people that I was starting to mixwith. And he was able to steer me in the right direction, because I didn’tknow the people. I think that’s how we built up a relationship too. Andthat’s what I could do with Paulie. Then you’d start to mooch aroundwith this one, that one and the other one. So it’s become an ongoingthing I think, where we keep learning from each other. And that’s a goodsort of life to go on with, eh?

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 129

Page 148: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

So Isabel took Paul under her wing, like she did with so many other youngpeople she met, black and white. Paul had already heard about the outspokenlocal doctor, Archie Kalokerinos at Collarenebri, through his contacts withFred Hollows and the Aboriginal Medical Service. He had a 12-week electiveterm coming up and had been thinking about doing it under Archie’s super-vision in Collarenebri. Isabel encouraged him, and offered to catch up withhim there if she was visiting home during his stay. Isabel hadn’t stoppedthinking about the bush, despite her hectic time in Sydney. In fact she hadbegun to draw on the whirl of optimistic ideas in the city to begin planningto make a difference in Collarenebri.

Characteristically, Isabel did meet Paul in Colle on her repeated visits,and took the opportunity to draw him into a larger project she had begun tothink about. This is how Paul remembered his experience:

Paul Torzillo: In retrospect, I think that Isabel had already seen the possi-bility of me going to Collarenebri as an opportunity. She wanted toupgrade my education and to ‘school’ me about Aboriginal communities.But she also wanted to get me to help her to get some change happeningon the Reserve at Collarenebri. She felt that the Reserve was an urgentpriority and she was trying to find a mechanism to make change happen.

Living conditions on the Reserve were horrendous. Housingconsisted of tin humpies with only two water points on the wholereserve. One of these was a single tap and one was a structure which hadbeen built in the sixties as an ablution facility. When I saw this itconsisted of a few pieces of galvanised iron over an area with a couple ofbroken tubs beside what was supposed to be a washing area. This was asmall piece of concrete with a drain that was completely blocked so thatthe whole area was continually flooded with dirty and contaminatedwater and could not be used for anything.

The Reserve had quite a mixture of inhabitants. There was old MrsBessie Khan, a quiet but always smartly dressed old woman. ShirleyWeatherall lived there with a big mob of kids. And there were a range ofother families.

The whole situation was really a microcosm of many communitiesfacing huge environmental problems, but with a whole range of obstruc-tions to organisation that many people would not understand. Isabel,I realised later, saw all these difficulties quite clearly. She recognised thatchange was going to be difficult not just because of the problems ofmoving the bureaucracy, but also the difficulty of getting people organ-ised and lobbying together. As in most communities there were somelong-held family differences between people, and Isabel herself had some

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 130

Page 149: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

difficulties in approaching everyone. Another thing I did not realise wasthat it was necessary to organise people, both in the town as well as onthe Reserve to be supporting a general principle of change. But what Idid begin to see was a talent of Isabel’s that I was to see many times inher career. This was the ability to utilise white support very astutely. Shewas aware of the potential value of white supporters, as well as theirhazards. I also think that she was someone in whom the politics and thesocial justice of situations was really the dominant issue and so thisallowed her to form friendships and comradeships with white supporterswhich few other Aboriginal leaders were able to do. The presence of ayoung, fairly naive, quite inexperienced but energetic white medicalstudent for three months was an opportunity rather than a nuisance forIsabel. In the weeks after I arrived I underwent a really amazing andintensive training course in what would probably be called ‘communitydevelopment’ nowadays, but in reality was training for political organ-isation and action.

Two processes began simultaneously through which Isabel beganintroducing me to almost the whole Aboriginal population in the town.I thought that all of this was happening through some random process,but in retrospect it was really quite orchestrated. It was done carefully,sequentially and with deliberate briefings which nevertheless seemedquite spontaneous. We would be sitting on the step of her house and shewould just start talking about someone. She would talk a little bit aboutthe person—she might mention where they had worked or what they haddone in the past and would invariably highlight some skill. ‘So and so, heis always good with the funerals—you know he organises the things, getsthe grave digging to happen and always manages to find a car . . .’ Or: ‘Soand so was really great on the fences, you know he fenced that stationout at such and such’.

She would always tell a little introductory story to ‘place’ the person.Then she would outline how he was related to her or other people Imight know and usually say something about what she thought thatperson might be able to contribute. Another device she often used wasto relate a conversation she will have had with the person as a way ofdemonstrating some point she wanted to make about them. Sometimesit would be an actual conversation she had had, but sometimes, as Irealised later, it was an amalgam of experiences she had had with thatperson which she related by enacting it as a conversation. She gave methis background for men and for women, for young people and oldpeople, and she clearly had a view that everyone had some potential tocontribute to the struggle.

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 131

Page 150: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Of course, in a small town like Collarenebri she could also ‘place’the white fellas in the same way and provide a similar background. Shecertainly did this for sympathetic figures like Archie Kalokerinos andpeople like Henry Denyer and his son, Harry, who was following hisfather in his quiet support for the Aboriginal community in the town.And she could do it for those white fellas who were antagonistic as well!

The next step was to organise me to meet the Aboriginal people shehad told me about. Sometimes she would do this by going to visit thepeople for some reason and just having me tag along, or sometimes shewould construct some other circumstance where I would get to meet thatfamily. She would sit back and just observe how I performed in this circum-stance. If I had stuffed up at the beginning then she could have stepped into cut the process off, but this was a way of assessing my potential.

Early on Isabel got me to the Reserve. Doreen Hynch and LesAdams were living there at that time and I got to know them early. Theywere fantastic supports and incredibly helpful and soon became my baseon the Reserve. My first real political issue was to take on the ablutionblock. In those early days we had unbelievably modest claims. CertainlyDoreen was just trying to get another couple of taps on the Reserve andget some way to drain the ablution block. I was of course naively opti-mistic about the outcomes, because the case for change seemed so strong.I was later to realise that just getting this humble goal to happen wasactually going to take a few years. Over my time in Collarenebri thisinvolved innumerable phone calls by me from the local public phonebox to Walgett Community Welfare Office, letters being drafted,discussed and sent, and eventually a couple of visits from the Walgettofficers, who travelled over to the Reserve with Harry Hall, by thenworking as a liaison officer with the department.

These were great educative experiences for me. On their first visit,the Welfare officers told me that the only reason the drains were blockedwas that Aboriginal kids would push tin cans down the drain. Even at thatstage I was able to look at the grill, rusted in over the drain and with atbest one-centimetre gaps in it, and realise that no one could push a tincan through it. This myth of blaming health hardware failure on vandal-ism is a tradition in Australian politics. It reappeared so often in my laterwork that by the 1990s I became involved in a long-term study of Aborig-inal housing across the country which has finally disproved the myth. Wehave now studied over 5000 Aboriginal houses in every state exceptTasmania and Victoria. We have shown conclusively that problemsexactly like the ones I first saw in Collarenebri are caused 98.5 per centof the time by poor design and faulty construction.1 They are almost never

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 132

Page 151: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

caused by resident vandalism. All this work arose in a very real way fromthat experience on the Wollai at Collarenebri in 1972.

The process of organisation around this little action was a fascinat-ing example of how Isabel worked. After getting me established andfriendly with Doreen and Les, Isabel began the process of introducing meto the rest of the people on the Reserve. This was not easy. Most of thesepeople were not in the habit of talking to strange white fellas for a start.They were quite reasonably suspicious and most of them recognised thatit was pretty unlikely that they were going to get much benefit fromtalking to me. And for my part, I was nervous and uncertain. However,Isabel guided me through this process, usually by teaching me to dothings in a slow fashion and one at a time.

As the talking around about the ablution facility went on, the issueof actually forming a housing company was raised. I think that Isabel justdropped this into the conversation one day as Doreen and I werediscussing the environmental health and housing issues. This plantedthe seed, so gradually we were moved from focusing just around two extrataps and unblocking a drain to the idea of forming a housing company.In retrospect, I think that this was something that Isabel saw mightevolve and that she really recognised quite early that we had to havesome start-up issue to get the whole thing rolling and to get peopleinvolved.

We decided that in regard to the ablution block we needed some sortof letter or petition that would be signed by everyone on the Reserve, orat least supported by them. As time went on, this process merged withthe idea of getting support for establishing a housing company. In anyevent, this gave me an excuse or a reason to be talking to people. Wekept going through the same process. Isabel would just suddenly raisesomebody’s name one morning. She would give me one of her briefingsand then tell me that we should go over to the Reserve at a particulartime. On some occasions we would both go and she would walk up to thecamp, sit down, just start generally yarning and then casually introduceme through the process. I had a little clipboard with a draft letter on itand we would gradually start to talk and then we would discuss the issues.She did this a few times and then would sometimes change the style. Shemight send me on my own. Sometimes this seemed to be because shethought I would be okay to cope or because she thought it would be goodfor me.

On other occasions there were clearly strategic reasons. I rememberher explaining to me in great detail Shirley Weatherall’s role in thecommunity and how it was very important to talk through these issues

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 133

Page 152: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

with her. Then as usual I drove Isabel down to the Reserve. When wewere about 200 metres from Shirley’s place, Isabel said ‘just pull up here’.I stopped the car and then she said, ‘Look I’ve just got to walk over thisway. Why don’t you go down there and see her?’ I was a bit nervous aboutthis and asked Isabel if it wouldn’t be better if she just took me down tointroduce me. In a very off-handed fashion she just said, ‘Oh no, you godown there. You’ll be right’. It wasn’t until a long time after this that Irealised that Shirley had been Aub Weatherall’s first wife. This was thereason that Shirley would have felt uncomfortable if Isabel had come. Itwas a great example of mixing the personal and the political!

Probably the next stage in the process was Isabel getting Barbaraand I together. Both Barbara and I often recount the story of our firstmeeting. In 1972 Barbara was living in Wee Waa, and had driven acrossto see Isabel with her young baby, Dezi. Isabel had not mentioned toBarbara that I was actually in Collarenebri and often staying at thehouse at that time. I remember walking back from the hospital up to theBlock and there was Isabel on the step with Barbara sitting next to herand Dezi breastfeeding. Isabel said, ‘Barbara, this is Paulie Torzillo. He’sa young medical student from Sydney’. Barbara looked me up and downand her first words to me were: ‘So this is the young doctor come to savethe poor black fellas’. Normally I would have been intimidated by thesarcasm of that comment. But Isabel brushed it aside by saying some-thing mildly reproving of Barbara and then asking her a question aboutwhat she thought we should do about the upcoming campaign aroundthe Reserve. Barbara immediately responded to that and addressed itseriously. She managed to include me in the conversation and it kickedon from there.

I am sure now in retrospect that this was part of Isabel’s schooling ofBarbara too. She had clearly recognised even then that Barbara wouldnot just be a protégé of hers, but be someone who was going to reallymake a big impact. I was somewhat in awe of Barbara over the followingweeks and months, but actually very quickly she swung into actionaround the housing company.

Things moved pretty fast then. Almost without me understandingwhy, we had a community meeting of everyone on the Reserve one nightwhere we discussed the establishment of the housing company. A few oldfellas decided on the appropriate name: they chose Mangankali, meaningsand goanna, which is an animal particularly associated with Collaren-ebri. They felt it was the right name to link the organisation, the peopleand the place. In typical style, Barbara produced all the essentials. Shetyped them up on an old typewriter and in what took only minutes, we

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 134

Page 153: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

had a submission for the establishment of a housing company in front ofus. It was probably almost a decade before that process actually resultedin some housing coming to Collarenebri, but it was an essential step onthe way. I guess that like Ho Chi Minh, Isabel realised that sometimesyou had to be prepared to wait for victory.

This whole episode allowed me to learn some things about Isabelwhich I realised over time were fundamental to the way she did every-thing. One was that she was a political strategist and organiser. Isabel wasalways able to have an overview—to facilitate, encourage, organise andsometimes manipulate other people to undertake action to get to a goalthat she had already predetermined. Another was a talent I suspect wasrelated, and that was the ability to be doing several things and runningseveral agendas at the same time. Thirdly, was her ability to develop andmaintain incredibly close friendships. I think these were more thanfriendships: they were really examples of comradeship because of the waythey evolved and were sustained.

Collarenebri wasn’t the only place where Murris wanted changes in 1972. Thebush communities across the northwest were each raising demands for changeand the volatile situation Isabel had witnessed on the cotton fields in WeeWaa blew up late in the year. Her brother Joe and his family were in the thickof it. The summer of late 1972 and early 1973 was hot but wet as well. Themany Aboriginal people from all over the state who had come to chip in thefields faced the worst conditions imaginable. The ‘camping’ area atTulladunna was well situated to be close to pick up spots to meet employersand get out into the fields, and it was next to the river so water was available.But the campsite was virtually unserviced, with no taps, no showers and notoilets. This was of course just like the Reserve at Collarenebri and in othertowns, but it was put under even worse pressure with the massive influx innumbers which the cotton season brought. Heavy summer rains that yearturned the black soil campsites like Tulladunna into deep quagmires in whichfamilies camped around their bogged cars trying to dry soaked bedding bydraping their blankets over the open car doors or hanging sheets on fencewires. Over these months, the local paper was full of reports of large numbersof fish found dead inexplicably in the lagoons. Aboriginal chippers were beingsent into the fields with no protection from the aerial spraying of concentratedDDT being delivered frequently to try to beat the boll weevil plague whichwas ravaging the crop at the time.2 The conditions on the camps led to a dozenAboriginal children being hospitalised early in December 1972, and an outcrywas raised by the local doctor, leading to a promise to install a bore and getelectricity to work its pump to try to provide clean water at Tulladunna. It is

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 135

Page 154: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

not clear if work had even started on this when, two days before Christmas, inthe rising atmosphere of anxiety that all these events combined to generate,an Aboriginal woman dropped to her knees and died in the middle of thecotton fields as she chipped weeds in the heat. A couple of weeks later, earlyin January 1973, another Aboriginal man died while he too was chipping.3 JoeFlick has described the situation over that terrible summer:

Joe Flick: When the cotton started, the Aboriginal people came in fromeverywhere for the employment. And there was about, I suppose, two to3000. Mostly Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who used to come infor the work during the chipping season. Mainly Aboriginal workers,there was hardly any European people on the field until later years whenwe got the award wage, then you’d see the Europeans come in. When thechipping started each year it was coming Christmas time and they’d doanything for Christmas. And it used to be lovely to see all these beauti-ful people from all around, it was really great to see the big gathering, butthe conditions were terrible. The Murris had about a 20-mile radius withlittle camps here, there and everywhere. Then they made a main campin Tulladunna close to town.

They used to get their water from the river, because they didn’t knowanything about it then, about pesticides in the water, they didn’t know athing about them. Once they got more aware of it, they had to carry theirwater from the town tap, they used to get the water up in the town. Noone to take it down to them, they had to carry it down with their con-tainers. There were no toilets, no showers . . . nothing. They had to digtheir own pit toilets, probably go down three to four foot and put a bagaround it.

The growers were spraying the cotton, spraying while the chipperswere on the field. But the Murris weren’t aware of how the spray couldaffect them then. There was no protective clothing. What you went towork in that morning, that’s what you’d come home with at night. Itdidn’t make any difference, they just seemed to think it was all Aborigi-nes working there, so they just thought they were nothing. The growerswere using these little kids to chip there, and some of the Murris thoughtit was a great family affair to go onto this cotton field. But it was verydangerous at that time for kids to go onto the field because those kidswould be in among the cotton when they were spraying it.

But the growers didn’t seem to understand that, as long as they gottheir work done. And they were only paying a dollar an hour . . . tendollars a day. So you had to work ten hours to get ten dollars, and it wascheaper before that.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 136

Page 155: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

They didn’t care whether you were on the field or not, they’d sprayyou. When it was time to spray, they’d spray just the same. I rememberone poor chap, he saw the plane coming in and he started to walk fast,and as the plane came closer he started to run; he couldn’t get away sohe just dived into the cotton and the plane just went straight over andsprayed him and the whole lot of us. That used to be a common thing.

I wasn’t aware of it for starters too, because I was just like the rest ofthem. But at the finish I started to sing out about it and bring the news-paper into it at the time . . . Well, with them, once you started to singout about it, you were a bloody agitator or something . . . you were inter-fering with them. And of course, I wasn’t very well liked then, becauseI got under the skin of the cotton growers. ‘He’s a bad man that Flick’.I had the worst name in Wee Waa.

And the bloody contractors were as bad as the owners. Even todaythe contractors are as bad as the owners . . . They might take us off thefield and say, ‘We’re going to spray this’, and about two hours later they’dsaid, ‘Oh, we’ve finished spraying there, go back on the field’, they wantus straight back on. And the cotton was wet with the spray, so I didn’t goon. I just picked my spade up and shot through. The contractor wassaying: ‘It’s all right, it can’t hurt you now it’s all finished’. But you cansmell the bloody thing. It’s a terrible smell.

Of course, diseases were breaking out—these women were havingmiscarriages and all this business. And blokes were getting cancer andsome other diseases we never ever heard of, they were new to us. See,when the strike started I was trying to think of these things, and I wastrying to look at these poor little kids—10 year olds, walking all day, upand down the water line, up and down handing out water, and then inthe cotton the same as the men and the women, and they must’ve beenaffected too, it scared me.

Well, in the strike, we didn’t want to see any kids go out there.4 Andwe didn’t want that poison to be put on the field while the chippers wereon the field. And we wanted better facilities for the people, toilets andshowers and all those sort of things for them—to come home and have agood shower and have your hands clean when you’re having a feed. Andto stop the council from kicking them around from pillar to post—whichthey were doing. There were a few from each camp in the strike, but . . .half the people didn’t have food . . . then we set up some food relief . . .Social Security had to come there. And we put in the money and wegave them food rations.

There was me and Michael Anderson, Harry Hall . . . I think that’sthe only three. We went to Sydney, and we saw the Waterside Workers

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 137

Page 156: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

to help us out with the strike, to fund us, because the people never hadany money to buy tucker, so that was the only way we were successfulwith that strike. The union wage came in and they said: ‘Well, we’llknock off all the kids, the kids can’t work anymore’. Well, I felt realpleased about that because I didn’t want the kids to be there. But therewere families who said: ‘Well, I’m going to miss out, my kids are notgoing to get paid and we’re not going to be getting that amount ofmoney’; but they were the ones thinking about themselves and didn’tcare how their kiddies were going to get hurt.

In that strike, we had to try and get things on a more even scale. Sowe had to set up these campsites. The Advancement Association gotgoing and we set up three campsites there for them. The council had tocome to the party sooner or later.

The strike achieved a minimum wage for the chippers, and the exclusion ofchildren from the fields. The Wee Waa Aboriginal community, with strongsupport from nearby Walgett and Collarenebri, set up the Wee Waa Aborigi-nal Advancement Association, and they campaigned for immediateimprovements in the facilities in the camps and for more suitable campinggrounds. But throughout the rest of the summer, the spraying continued andthe local paper kept reporting sightings of dead fish in the river and reportsof confirmed pesticide poisonings among both workers and residents affectedby spray drift as the pesticides sprayed on the crops was blown over the townand nearby grazing properties.5 The tensions at Wee Waa—about cottongenerally and between black and white residents—were not going to go away.

Isabel Flick


Joe Flick (on right), Roy Thorne and Harry Hall (third and fourth from left) at an earlymeeting of the Wee Waa Aboriginal Advancement Association, c. 1973. (Photo: WeeWaa Echo and Karen Flick.)

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 138

Page 157: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel followed the Wee Waa saga closely, saw Joe when he was in Sydneyfor meetings with the unions, and was in constant touch with Collarenebri aswell. Isabel was a great letter writer, sending off short notes and cards just tokeep in touch and for every occasion from birthdays to illnesses to anniver-saries. Her main family focus was in Collarenebri because her mother Celiawas there, living in the house on the Block with her sister Clara. Their brotherJimmy had a house over the gully, and Lubby had come back home.

Relenting in her determination never to go near Colle again, Lubby hadreturned to see her family at about the same time as Isabel was preparing toleave in 1972. But instead of a short visit, Lubby stayed on, falling into a re-lationship with a Collarenebri man which rapidly became tense and violent.She had a son, Deakin, early in 1973 but towards the end of that year the situ-ation deteriorated and Lubby was desperate to get away. Her family knew shewas in trouble and supported her when she boarded the train at Pokataroo,heading to the city to take refuge with Isabel and Barbara. But her blokeheard about it and raced the train to Wee Waa in his car. He pulled her offthe train there, and after a very public argument they disappeared. Lubby wasfound shot dead outside the town.

The family were distraught. Isabel rushed up to Collarenebri and helpedwith the funeral as best she could. Baby Deakin was brought into his mother’sfamily, cared for by all his aunties, but really settling with Joe and Isobelle inWee Waa. The family had no peace as they waited on the outcome of the policeinvestigation. For Isabel and all her brothers and sisters, the years of watchingpolice intimidation and abuse of Aborigines in the area had fostered a deepdistrust. Their worst fears were confirmed when the long, distressing inquest atWee Waa ended in nothing but frustration. The family were convinced Lubbyhad been murdered, but the coroner’s open verdict suggested suicide. It seemedlike an easy way out for a justice system which didn’t want to take the trouble tofind out what had really happened to this young black woman.

Isabel was shattered by Lubby’s death and its aftermath. She was hauntedby the feeling that she could have intervened had she still been living inColle. It began to suck the energy out of her. Her unresolved grief was over-whelming and on top of the sense of things being out of control in the newcity environment, she felt she was having a breakdown. This was an episodeof the deep depression which was periodically to overtake her in the years tocome. It changed the way Isabel saw life in the city, which instead of a newbeginning began to seem like a series of ever worsening trials for her familyto drag themselves through. Her blood pressure became more difficult tocontrol, interrupting her ability to work and look after her busy household.

And the Flick house at 102 Johnston Street was busy! It was a semi-detached single-storey house on a wide street near the Annandale shops,

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 139

Page 158: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

larger than many in the inner city and with a laundry downstairs under theback of the house. There were usually people staying, along with the imme-diate family. Barbara Flick and her husband, Bill Kennedy from Walgett, andtheir baby son, Dezi, were often there after they moved from Wee Waa toSydney. Isabel’s eldest daughter Brenda had had a baby, Bernadette, and sothere was a whole new generation of Flicks to enjoy and worry about. ClaraMason’s daughter, Jacqui, was living with a supportive church family innearby Burwood, but she welcomed Isabel’s visits. In 1975, Clara’s youngestson, Noel, also needed visiting as he lay in a St Ives hospital, immobilised formonths in a cast to correct congenital hip problems.

The house was a hub of contact too with the other Collarenebri andnorthwestern families in the city. Aub’s eldest son by his first marriage, BobWeatherall and his wife Patty, lived close by and were regular visitors andcomrades in the campaigns Isabel was involved in to improve the local cityschools for their kids. Another regular Collarenebri connection were Bruceand Pat Mason with their children. Bruce was Clara’s brother-in-law, brotherof Josie Thorne, and the youngest son of Nanna Pearlie Mason; he had grownup on the Old Camp with Isabel. His wife Pat was a sister of Mavis Rose fromWalgett, another strong and active woman in a nearby western town inwhich Aboriginal politics was dominated by men. Both Bruce and Patremained Isabel’s staunch friends, as did Mavis Rose.

So the northwestern connections shaped the way the household worked.There was often a crowd of people at the house, sometimes in a big card gameof Eucre, sometimes getting ready to go to housie to meet up with otherMurris, or just sitting round and yarning. But there were others as well.A quirky demonstration of the generosity and empathy which Isabel and herfamily showed to anyone in trouble was Col, the old down-and-out whitebloke whom Amy had found in the street and taken pity on, bringing himhome a bit like a lost dog. Isabel had agreed that he could spend the night inthe downstairs laundry, and he had just sort of stayed, unobtrusive, respect-ful, and probably barely able to believe his good fortune.

Isabel found the space to invite some of the new friends she had beenmaking in the political movements. Peter Tobin was there and Paul Torzillobegan to drop in, partly to continue the work Isabel had got him started on,partly to keep an eye on Isabel’s health, and partly just to pass the time,sitting and talking on the end of Isabel’s bed because her bedroom was theone quiet place in the house.

One of those visits early in 1974 was my first introduction to Isabel. I’dbeen hearing about her since Paul had first met her and I was nervous as I wasintroduced to this woman who had so inspired him. And it was easy to seewhy. Isabel was extraordinary as she talked with Paul about Collarenebri;

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 140

Page 159: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

astute and shrewd, and hilarious as she parodied the obstructive officials withwhom they had had to deal. And as she talked she never stopped analysingthe situation and seeking out practical ways they could try to get through thebureaucratic maze. Isabel was cautious with me as she sized me up, but shebecame more interested as I asked her about my project.

The idea had grown from a conversation I’d had with Peter Tobin, whomI’d come to know well by then. I was being offered an opportunity for post-graduate research and Peter advised me not to waste it on a distant, esoterictopic, but to grab the chance to do the urgent work of recording the memoriesof the older members of the Aboriginal communities around the state. Isabelknew how powerful these stories were and was interested in the possibilities ofhaving them brought together. Before long she started to suggest people I couldgo to for more advice and things I could ask about, many of them the formativeexperiences of her own life—like colour bars in schools and police violence. SoI became one of the visitors to 102, dropping in for a cup of tea and, recruitedto do some driving every now and again, I’d catch up on a talk with Isabel as Idropped her off to one or other of the many appointments she had to keep afterwork, like visiting little Noel Mason or going to one of her meetings.

She started looking after me like she looked after Paulie and Peter andthe other young people she took under her wing. I can’t even begin to countthe times I was deeply grateful to her for it. For some of her city friends, thebush environment was familiar, but for others like me, country white societywas just as alien to us as her Aboriginal bush communities were. Isabel was aguide and navigator into the untracked wastes of rural race relations. Thedelicate negotiating and communicating skills she had polished in the toughyears she had lived in Collarenebri were what she was teaching from as shesuggested the most likely people to approach with questions, how to tactfullyavoid confrontations if we could, or to face them where they were unavoid-able, when to expect attacks and when to confidently pursue the secrets sheknew were locked up in country council minutes and school files. She keptan eye on us, suggesting useful work we could do, pushing us into challengingsituations because she knew we’d learn that way. She gave us advice so wedidn’t make fools of ourselves too often, worried about us and defended us if,or when, we messed up, laughed with us later to ease our regret and embar-rassment, and gave us a chance to talk about it and learn from our mistakes.

Despite its warmth, Isabel’s household wasn’t peaceful and it wasn’talways happy. She was working hard because she had one of the few stableincomes in the family and her spare time was often soaked up by politicalmeetings. Her children felt her absence, struggling to deal with the tensionbetween their resentment at what they saw as her lack of attention, and theiradmiration and support for her political work.

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 141

Page 160: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Tony had had a mixed experience at Kirinari. His cousin Joey, Joe andIsobelle’s son, was there, as were many teenaged boys from other north-western communities like Brewarrina and Bourke. But the arrangements forschooling had just changed, as Tony has remembered:

Tony: All the other Kirinari kids had gone to Gymea High, but me andTommy Stewart from Bourke, being new, they thought they’d put acouple of Kirinari boys at Sylvania just for a trial. We were the only twothere, whereas if we’d been at Gymea, we’d have been among maybe 22kids. And because we were only young fellas, we were way outnumberedand outclassed! Lucky Tommy could fight, believe me . . . ’Cause I wasalways skinny! . . . But it was good. I was glad I went to Kirinari. At leastit gave us a chance, and I think I took advantage of the chances I’ve had,’cause I’ve worked all my life.

Tony completed his School Certificate at Kirinari, but the apprenticeships helooked for to meet his interest in mechanical work were impossible to find.The factory jobs which were open for him and his father in the city were

Isabel Flick


Tony Flick at Kirinari Aboriginal School Boys’ Hostel. Tony is sixth from left in a checkedshirt. His cousin Joey is fourth from left.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 142

Page 161: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

alienating and short term. Isabel’s partner Aub was unhappy in the city andhe worked less and less and began drinking more often in frustration. Amyand young Aub had a hard time at the local high schools and Amy particu-larly ran wild in the unregulated spaces of the city.

Amy’s exploits became legendary. Her activities were victimless crimes,but outrageous and provocative ones. She dabbled with stealing cars, butnever ordinary cars. Her attention-seeking behaviour was deeply worrying forIsabel, but it was also a cry for some sort of help. The apprentice filmmakerPhil Noyce was interested in making a film about her called simply Amy,which became a talking piece at the time about the dilemmas facing Aborig-inal families in the city. For Isabel, it was a worry that she didn’t need but shewas at least able to draw on the resources of her friends:

Isabel: Amy went through a really bad time growing up. I think I wastrotting up to the court all the time; she was in all kinds of misde-meanours—off with a bunch of kids in a car. And ended up stealing itand driving through Coonamble, four little black girls in a Mercedes!One time, she’d given her age as 18 and she ended up in SilverwaterWomen’s Prison. And that friend of ours came over and he said: ‘Wipeyour legs over, put your shoes on. You’ve got to go’. Poor Peter Tobin, hewas such a great worker. And getting to know people like him gave memore confidence as I went along.

Peter Tobin had fulfilled his promise to Isabel and taken up the job as the firstcountry solicitor with the Aboriginal Legal Service in 1973. He served aslegal adviser for Aborigines across the whole western half of the state for anarduous and exciting 18 months before returning to Redfern as PrincipalSolicitor in the Aboriginal Legal Service. He saw her both in her visits toCollarenebri and in Sydney: he continued to give her legal advice and shecontinued to give him personal and community advice in a friendship whichwas sustained despite their geographic distance and travels. His support forher family and community was important to Isabel as she tried to work outhow to make it through one crisis after another.

Problems about her own house in Collarenebri were worrying Isabel.Since she had moved, the Block wasn’t just a house for her mother Celia, hersister Clara and her family. It had a heavy symbolic value for all the family—wherever they were living—because of the struggle Mick had had to securethe lease in the first place against the racism of the town and then because ofhis success in making it such a home base for them all.

The western lands lease over the Block itself was held in perpetuity, withonly a relatively small annual lease fee. But Isabel had borrowed money from

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 143

Page 162: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

the Aborigines Welfare Board in order to build the house there in 1969. From1972, there was little money going into paying off the loan: there wasn’t muchleft from Clara’s and Celia’s pensions after Clara’s seven children had been fed.Isabel’s family was struggling to make ends meet to pay their rent and tosupport their teenaged children in the expensive city. The mortgage paymentsfell into arrears and by December 1974, the Directorate, successor to theWelfare Board, demanded that Celia and her grandchildren move out of theCollarenebri house so it could be publicly auctioned to recover the debt.

This meant that not only the house, but also the land on which it stoodwas going to be sold. Isabel was appalled at the thought of losing this linkwith her father even more than she worried over losing the house. She calledon Peter Tobin, then still based at Brewarrina, to take up her case. He wroteto the Directorate on behalf of Isabel and the Aboriginal Legal Service,pointing out how important the house was to the wider family and howdamaging the loss of the land as well as the house would be for them. TheDirectorate eventually called off the auction, and grudgingly agreed to rene-gotiate the mortgage repayments, taking the immediate pressure off Isabel,but leaving her with the continuing task of meeting the payments.

For the moment, the house and the Block were safe, but the disrespect inwhich Isabel’s home was held by local authorities became apparent the next

Isabel Flick


Isabel’s house on the Block at Collarenebri, c. 1976, showing the newly constructed watertower, built by the Shire without consultation with Isabel. The hospital grounds areimmediately to the right, just out of the picture.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 144

Page 163: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

time she went back to Collarenebri. On the boundary between the hospital andIsabel’s land, no more than 20 metres from her front door, the Shire had builtan enormous water tower, 50 metres high and 15 metres in diameter. They hadnot sought Isabel’s consent, nor had they consulted her about the position ofthe tower. The message was clearly that Isabel’s consent or otherwise was of noconsequence to the Shire, her house was invisible to them and her Block wasconsidered as outside the town limits, ‘beyond the pale’ in every sense.

Entangling the City with the Bush


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 145

Page 164: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

7Reinventing Isabel, 1977–1980

Isabel’s health deteriorated as she struggled to keep an income coming intothe Annandale household and to meet payments for the house at Collaren-ebri. She was still deeply disturbed over Lubby’s death. At the same time, shefound herself exhausted and on repeated sick leave because she was facingcomplications from worsening gynaecological problems. She’d relax with asmoke, but she was starting to realise that cigarettes were worsening herhypertension and her recurrent chest infections. But trying to give upsmoking in an environment where everyone else smoked just added to herworries. She needed to call on relations and friends to get through:

Isabel: I think with Amy, a lot of people were always available to takecustody of her when I was very sick. I had to get more strength as I wentbecause I was just going through one crisis after another, after I lost mylittle sister—and even before that, because I knew that she was in troubleand that she wanted to get away from that bloke of hers.

But after being so sick since I lost my sister, I don’t know how Icoped. I just went from that breakdown into the fact that I needed tohave a hysterectomy. And that was a mental smash. Because I know Ididn’t want to have that. I was so scared. I thought surely I could havesomething other than the hysterectomy. But then they finally said: ‘No,this is not going to go away, it’s going to get worse’. And when I went tothe specialist in Macquarie Street, he said: ‘Yes, you’ve got to have ahysterectomy and you’ve got to have it done very soon’. I go down there


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 146

Page 165: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

[to the hospital], they stuck me in. They put me in one afternoon andoperated on me the next morning, and the next day after the operation,the fella who gave me the anaesthetic said: ‘I didn’t know that your chestwas as bad as it is. If I’d known I wouldn’t have given you that because Icould’ve killed you. You very nearly didn’t make it’. And then I went outto a rest home for a while that time, because I was having all thoseproblems with Amy and everything . . . I don’t think I’d have made itotherwise. But, it strengthened me to deal with a lot of issues—all myown personal stuff. It’s marvellous how I kept getting mixed up withother people as well, and going on and doing other things, because I hada full-time job dealing with my own personal problems.

But she did keep getting mixed up! As her strength gradually returned afterthe operation, Isabel began to get involved again in community politics. Shehad resigned from the Prince Alfred Hospital and in mid-1975 took a job ascommunity health worker with the newly established Aboriginal HealthUnit in the NSW Department of Health. Her wide knowledge of north-western Murris living in Sydney allowed her a base to extend her network,developing friendships with people from across the state.

Her focus remained strongly on the bush, despite her work in Sydney,and her involvement with Tranby deepened as it became the centre ofbuilding momentum for the campaign for land rights in New South Wales.Isabel’s concern about land security had been awakened years ago by thedumping of the Old Camp population at the unserviced Wollai Reserve in1960. And she had learnt how hard it was to protect important sites when herfather had witnessed the uprooting of the Collymongle trees. These concernshad only been sharpened by the near loss of her father’s block. So the swellof land rights’ agitation was intensely interesting to her and allowed her tomake the direct links between city and country that were so close to the wayshe was living.

Land had been a major public issue for Aborigines in New South Walesat community level all through the nineteenth century and it had showed inthe statements made by the earliest political organisations—the AustralianAborigines’ Progressive Association in the 1920s and then the 1930s’movement led by Bill Ferguson, Jack Patten and Pearlie Gibbs, which hadmobilised the north-western Murris in the demands for citizens rights, an endto enforced movements like that from Angledool to Brewarrina, and for landsecurity. It was these activists, Ferguson and Bert Groves, whom Isabel hadseen as a child at Toomelah. And she had come to know Pearl Gibbs wellduring the 1950s and 1960s as she campaigned from her Dubbo base aswell as from sitting on the Welfare Board.

Reinventing Isabel


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 147

Page 166: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The land issue had simmered, but had often been put on the backburnerin New South Wales in recent decades as campaigners tended to focus onending legislative discrimination and on building up community organis-ations. But it had been the land issue, and New South Wales activists, whichhad sparked the Tent Embassy in 1972, and the question of land rightswas high on the agenda of the incoming Federal Labor Government late inthat year.

Australian Federal arrangements meant that land remained under thepower of state governments. When the new Federal Government tried toimplement laws restoring rights over land for Aborigines, they found thatthey could act only in the territories controlled by the national govern-ment— that is, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territoryaround Canberra and Jervis Bay. The complexities of defining and legislatingland rights in the Northern Territory against trenchant pastoralist andmining opposition absorbed great attention from the Whitlam AboriginalAffairs’ machinery, but the Bill which was finally drafted had not been passedwhen the government fell in the chaos surrounding the Dismissal in 1975.Many Aboriginal activists in New South Wales were involved over the nextyear in applying pressure to the incoming and hostile conservative FraserGovernment to save the Bill.

Although severely watered down, the Land Rights Act was eventuallypassed in 1976 and almost immediately Aborigines across the country beganorganising to pressure their state governments for land rights, at the least onthe minimal Northern Territory model, but hopefully in more favourableterms relevant to each state’s history and conditions. New South WalesAborigines were in a difficult position: they had suffered intense colonisationfor the longest, and so their traditional culture had undergone the most trans-formation. And New South Wales’ land had been so intensively alienatedthat much of it was held by private owners in freehold. So its reacquisitionwithout widespread public consent could occur only through the very costlyand unpopular process of compulsory government resumption.

This was clearly going to be a difficult campaign, but there were olderpeople in the state who were veterans of the 1920s’ and 1930s’ campaigns forland, and they were determined to pursue the goal. Particularly important werethe coastal activists like Jacko Campbell, who had grown up in Kempsey butwho had lived after his marriage in his wife’s Jerringa community at RosebyPark, near Nowra. Jacko and other old south coast campaigners, like GubooTed Thomas, had strong links with Kevin Cook at Tranby, where Jacko sat onthe Board. So with the Co-operative College’s history of community-based butnon-factionalised political activity, Tranby became the meeting place andresource centre for the network of land rights’ campaigners in city and country.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 148

Page 167: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The groups of black and white activists holding the meetings Isabel hadbeen attending in support of the Embassy in 1972 had been re-formingaround the land rights issue, as well as in defence of Aboriginal communitiesunder pressure from police. The Black Defence Group had been meeting inthis capacity through 1976. With strong input from Kevin Cook and MarciaLangton, who had recently moved from Queensland to Sydney, this groupbegan reactivating the demands for land which had been such a hallmark ofNew South Wales Aboriginal politics. The state Government had set up abody called the Lands Trust, made up of Aboriginal members but with nopower other than to fulfil government policy of quietly revoking or selling theremaining Aboriginal Reserves in the interest of ‘assimiliation’. JackoCampbell and many of the old activists hated the Lands Trust, and every onewas angry with them making decisions without consulting communities,although Isabel regarded them as a necessary evil with whom she was to workwhen strategically necessary. But in mid-1977 came news that the LandsTrust was getting rid of yet another Reserve, and so the Black Defence Groupplanned a statewide community conference about land for the long weekendin October 1977. A big community football knockout was on then, bringingAboriginal people to Sydney from over 100 communities. This seemed like aperfect opportunity to talk the land issues over with many rural people, aswell as with those living in Sydney.

Isabel had been coming to Black Defence meetings occasionally, withher niece Barbara. As Isabel described it: ‘Barbara was in and out like me. Wewere sort of doing a lot of washing on one side and then we’d come back anddo a bit of ironing’.

Her involvement increased as the land issue gained prominence and shebecame one of the important community figures involved in organising forthe 1977 Land Rights meeting, taking part in some of the trips to informcommunities about the opportunity to get together on the issue:

Isabel: We started getting involved in finding out about the landrights—how we could get land rights legislation into parliament. Thatmeant we had to go right around, camping right around in all kinds ofcircumstances. The main thing was that we were going around to allthe communities and letting them know. In the Black Defence Group,when we talked about setting up an organisation, we said if it’s justgoing to be in the city, then you’re going to lose it. What has to happenis that people from the city have to do the majority of work, becausethis is where the action is—in the city. But the meetings and thedecision making should be taken back to the country area. And thatwas a good way of working it too, because all the resources were down

Reinventing Isabel


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 149

Page 168: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

there in the city. And we had very little communications in the bush.We didn’t have the faxes and mobiles they’ve got now. So when youconsider that, you know, I think we did a good job in working with thecommunities.

The vulnerability of the western communities had been demonstrated by thebig flood early in 1976, which followed on only two seasons after the huge1974 flood. The floodwaters inundated low lying riverbank areas, and thesewere often Aboriginal reserves, like the Wollai, precisely because their flood-prone nature made them less desirable for white housing. The 1976 flood wasso much worse than earlier ones because, in Isabel’s view, the new built-uproads across the flood plain to service the cotton industry at Wee Waa hadimpeded the flow of water and banked it up across the Aboriginal com-munity’s housing. There were also reserves that were always cut off whenfloodwaters poured through the gullies between them and towns like Bogga-billa and West Brewarrina. This isolated large Aboriginal communitieswithout food or access to medical services, yet there was never a planned oradequate response from the local Emergency Services groups because theirpriorities were saving white housing and graziers’ stock. Aborigines’ lack ofcontrol over the siting of their housing and their lack of access to normal,decent community services infuriated Isabel and was made very clear to herwhen her aged mother and Celia’s sister, Aunty Maggie, were isolated andthen had to be evacuated from Collarenebri to Sydney during the 1976 flood.Their situation had a very personal resonance for Isabel. Although Celia hadbeen such a great traveller in her younger days, she had seldom left the north-western region. She and Maggie felt out of place and bewildered in the city,and their unease only emphasised their growing frailty as Isabel realised thatage had caught them up during her years in the city.

Peter Thompson was back in the bush by then. He and Lynne Craigiehad separated and Isabel remained close to them both, although Isabel sawLynne only occasionally because she moved to Queensland. But Peter beganwork with the NSW Directorate of Aboriginal Affairs as Housing ProjectOfficer, and assisted the community at Wilcannia as they developed an inno-vative plan for housing the whole community after the Reserve had beenwashed away, first in 1974 and then again in 1976. Peter Thompson’s growingknowledge about the land laws and about how to make decent housingculturally appropriate as well as practical was of great interest to Isabelbecause it brought together the broad issue of land, with the detailed andpractical questions of making houses work. She stayed in frequent touch withhim for discussions about community organisations, as well as for his adviceon archaeology and on his other long passion, linguistics.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 150

Page 169: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The pressures of home and political work were building for Isabel during1976. She was our witness when Paul Torzillo and I were married inDecember of that year, in an event that showed some of the cross currentswithin which she was working. The night was a mixture of old and newfriends: the celebrant was Faith Bandler, Peter Tobin rang from London,and there were friends there from unions and politics. Also attending wereIsabel’s old comrades from the western areas: Tombo Winters from Brewar-rina, Julie Whitton from Boggabilla, and Mavis Rose and her family fromWalgett. Our other witness was Peter Thompson, dressed like a bush lawyerin jeans, t-shirt and sandals, while Isabel, like Paul and I, was dressed up tothe hilt as we celebrated in the back yard of Paul’s parents’ home. Isabel’sfamily were all there, and we have some great photos of the long, hilariousnight as jokes were told and good times shared. But it had been chaotic asIsabel had tried to get there, with the usual household confusions intensifiedwhile Isabel tried to concentrate on getting herself ready, with conflicts goingon within the younger partnerships in the household, and an underlyingtension simmering in the relationship between Isabel and Aub. Isabel hadstormed out in exasperation and caught a cab on her own and left the rest toget themselves there, which they all did eventually to share a great night.

It had become clear to Isabel that the city was not a good place for herfamily. She was facing a rising conviction that the move to the city had been

Reinventing Isabel


Isabel as a witness at the wedding of Paul Torzillo and Heather Goodall in 1976. FaithBandler is the celebrant and Peter Thompson, on right, is the other witness.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 151

Page 170: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

a mistake, that changes would be needed. But more urgent for her was therecognition that her relationship with Aub had broken down completely andshe could not keep pretending that it was working. She grew more certainthat before she even thought about how to get out of the city, she had todecide to get out of her partnership with Aub. This was becoming thinkablebecause she realised that her children were reaching an age where they couldbe independent, or at least where they could cope with her absence. She hadto face the prospect of changing not just her situation, but herself. This wouldbe a reinvention, as she took stock and gathered her strength to become anew person.

Isabel needed to work to maintain her financial independence and coverthe mortgage payments, as well as to contribute to the family income; shesaw a solution in a live-in job. This took her back to the domestic work ofcleaning and cooking, but it offered a way out. Around the time she was thewitness at our wedding, she had quietly begun searching the papers for likelyjobs. The response was unexpected, but it served her purposes well and at thesame time gave her a bemused glimpse at the ‘upstairs and downstairs’ ofSydney society life:

Isabel: I’d just left Aub then, and I thought: ‘I don’t want to live withother people’. And I didn’t quite want to let everybody know about it, andI just saw the ad in the paper one day and so I made a phone call. Andthe next thing this big Rolls Royce pulls up outside Johnston Street. Andsomeone said: ‘Oh yeah, a big flash car out there’. And the chauffeur camein and he said: ‘I’m supposed to make arrangements for you to come toRosemont for an interview’. I said: ‘What for?’ And he said: ‘For thatposition of cook with Lady Lloyd-Jones’. I hadn’t realised where it was,you know. And I’m looking at the car and he’s in his uniform, and I’mthinking: ‘I wonder where the hell this is?’ So I got the phone number andhe said he’d make arrangements.

This is before I’d even moved out completely. I was back andforward, sort of thing. And anyhow, when I rang up and said: ‘I got themessage okay. So where would I have to go to keep this appointment?’So Lady Lloyd-Jones gave me the address, and said ‘Just get a taxi andwe’ll fix the taxi up when it comes’. And for me to bring copies of myreferences. And she said: ‘So you’re really interested in coming out?’ Andit was just basic cooking, plain cooking. And when I saw the house Ithought: ‘Oh God. I couldn’t cook here’. And the other maids werewalking past with their little caps on and aprons and I said: ‘Oh gee, Idon’t think I could fit into this’. But she said: ‘Well, you could give it atry, if you wanted to. We decided we’d ask you to give it a try. And if you

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 152

Page 171: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

don’t like it then . . . you know, no harm done’. And I said: ‘Now, can Ithink about this for today?’ ‘Well, think about it over the next couple ofdays and just gives us a ring when you want to come out’. And I said:‘Okay’.

So they got the chauffeur to take me back to Annandale. And thenI thought: ‘Oh well, I need to get a place . . . I don’t want to live withother people’. Because I was well and truly out of that relationship by then.Aud had made up his mind, he didn’t want me back anyhow. And the kidsdidn’t care much. So that’s how come I got to go out there. And I think itwas just an eye-opener to see how people could be real servants.

And those people didn’t know what they were supposed to be doingor where they were going. Those servants had to say in the morning:‘Well, Sir Charles, you need to be at such and such a place at two o’clockand then somewhere at three o’clock’. So it was the staff that was arrang-ing all their day for them. And their dogs had to be shampooed andwhatever on the Wednesday morning.

It was interesting to me because they only had plain food, and didn’thave any problem with that, you know. Oh, even when the people likeSir John Kerr and all them came, and John Laws and his wife, you know,they just had plain food. And I didn’t mind. Because all I had to do wascook it and dish it up and . . . I thought it was interesting, you know. Justplain everyday stuff. But the night John Kerr was coming, they werehaving cutlets that night, grilled cutlets. And our gardener came in, hewas an old Scott and he said to me: ‘I suppose you’re going to burn thebloody chops’. I said: ‘No’. And he said, ‘I thought you might burnthe bloody chops . . . because I would!’

But you know, Lady Lloyd-Jones had a personal maid and her sonCharles had a personal maid. And they laid their clothes out everymorning. Even the dogs, you know, someone had to take the dogs for awalk. It was just unreal, you know, to realise how much they did forthemselves—it was very little. I thought: ‘Well, I don’t think I could livethis life’.

I used to come into the medical centre in Redfern for my check-ups. . . I was on blood pressure treatment. ‘Oh no dear, you don’t have togo in there, our personal doctor will come out’. But I said: ‘Oh no thanks.I usually go to the one doctor and it’ll be okay. I’ll catch the bus in’. Andshe said: ‘Oh no. Holmes can take you’. I said: ‘Oh no, I go into Redfern’.‘Oh, you go into Redfern. All the way into Redfern from Woollarah’.And I said: ‘Yeah, well they’ve been my doctors ever since I’ve beendown here’. Oh, she said . . . ‘Oh well, you know Holmes will take youthere’.

Reinventing Isabel


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 153

Page 172: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

And I thought: ‘I can see me going in there with a bloody RollsRoyce!’ And I used to feel terrible when I used to go into town, theywouldn’t let me get a bus, they wanted the chauffeur to run me in. Butin the end I’d just go: ‘Oh all right’. And then riding along, I’m sitting inthe front with the chauffeur. And I said: ‘Holmes, you know I don’t likethis’. And he’d say: ‘Why not? Just forget it, you know, we’re just twopeople in a motorcar. Don’t worry about what other people say’. I said:‘But look how everybody sort of . . . looks, you know!’ He said: ‘Well, wecould get curtains, I suppose. Isabel, stop worrying about it’. He was afunny old man . . . he was an Englishman too. But see, her personal maidwas an old Englishwoman, old Kath. She’d been with the family for along time . . . I think she grew up in that role because she was the perfectservant. Everything she did was for Madam. Everything. She wouldn’t goto bed until everybody else went to bed—that’s how she was. But Madamhad a nurse there too, a qualified sister there all the time. She was sickthen, but she used to get out a bit when I first went there.

I think I had nine months there or so. And it gave me time to thinkabout what I was doing. And it wasn’t a lot of money or anything. Butthe worship, you know, to watch how they worshipped those people. IfCharles came down and said good morning to [the servants], they’d thinkit was really extra, you know? He was a special man. And I used to justwatch it, he might walk past sometimes and not even say anything toanybody. And there’d be other times when he’d pop his head in thekitchen and say hello. And they’d think that was really special.

The old gardener fellow, he was a bit militant, you know. And hemight say something like: ‘Oh that’s not my cup of tea. I’m not into thatkind of worship!’ . . . And old Kath would get so upset. I’d say: ‘Oh, don’tworry about him Kath’. I used to worry about Kath. I’d think how’s thiswoman going to get on if something happens to the old woman. BecauseI couldn’t see her staying on as Charles’ maid. And then when she was tooold, they put old Kath out into that nursing home. It was a nice place, butshe didn’t know where she was when I went out to visit her. She was terri-fied because she didn’t know what to do or how to get about, because shenever had to go out of Rosemont. She never had to go out of that house.No sense of being able to look after herself out of that big mansion. So itwas really sad to watch. She said, ‘Oh, Isabel I don’t know how I’m goingto live here’. And I said: ‘Well, haven’t you got a family at home inEngland?’. ‘Oh, my sister died and this one . . .’ and so she’d go throughthe family history of who’s left there at home and she’d say, ‘Oh, no Icouldn’t go home to them’. And then she’d be talking about ‘poorMadam’ . . . And ‘She’s in a nursing home too, did you know?’

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 154

Page 173: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The people at the home were so impersonal and she was really goingthrough a bad time. I spoke to the woman at the front desk and I said toher: ‘Gee, she’s very much out of her area. Even if she was somewhereclose to Woollarah it might be okay for her’. And then the next time shewrote to me she said she’d moved back towards there. They’d got her aplace closer. She said she was a bit happier, but when I went to see heragain she still seemed really out of it. But she must’ve been a very oldwoman then. That was all she’d lived for—to look after that family. Andwhen one of the grandkids got married, she got married there at Wool-larah, and they had these big caterers come in and do all the bighorseshoe things and, oh, Kath thought it was great, you know. And I’llsay one thing, those kids did come out and make a fuss over her. Andthey brought her little presents and stuff like that, and she thought thatwas fine. But it was a marvellous experience just to see how they lived.

Isabel grew fond of Kath, Holmes and the old Scottish gardener, but hersympathy for them didn’t mean she was compelled to become too deeplyinvolved in their bizarre and alien environment. Instead, she was grateful forthe peaceful time this gave her to collect her thoughts. But the burden offamily illness and tragedy which she had been carrying was added to soonenough, when in May we had to tell her about the death of her good friendPeter Tobin, killed in a plane crash in Cuba just before he had planned toreturn to Australia.

For Isabel this sad shock was a signal that the hiatus at Rosemont hadcome to an end. It was time to face the new directions of her life. She resignedsoon after from the Lloyd-Jones’ and returned to Johnston Street, but the situ-ation there was unhappy. Fearing another bout of depression, Isabel came tolive for a few months with Judy and Jack Torzillo, Paul’s parents, on the edge ofKuringai Chase at Terrey Hills. Isabel had become friends with the Torzillosover the years of knowing Paul, and had developed a strong friendship withJudy, based on their shared outlooks, despite their very different pasts. Theywere of similar ages, and as they compared their life courses they could each seeclearly all the points at which Isabel had missed the education she wanted sokeenly. But they shared an interest in active social change and a warm andsupportive approach to family which gave them much in common.

The differences in their experiences became even more starkly obviouswhen Judy drove Isabel to a hypertension outpatients clinic at the PrinceAlfred. Paul was doing specialist training at Dubbo Hospital so we were outof town, but Isabel hadn’t been expecting any complications from thisroutine visit, so she just saw the young doctor who happened to be on duty.Judy sat with Isabel while he began to take a history, and when he asked how

Reinventing Isabel


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 155

Page 174: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

much she’d been drinking, Isabel carefully listed her glasses of water and cupsof tea. The doctor snorted, ‘Come on now. How much grog have you hadtoday!’ He refused to believe she didn’t drink and continued to question heraggressively. Isabel was distressed and irritated, but not surprised by his abuse;Judy was shocked. Eventually, when the incident was reported to Paul andthe Hospital Administration, the resident was shocked too by the disciplinaryaction he clearly hadn’t been expecting. Such racist behaviour is usuallyhidden from the view of white, middle-class patients which means that it isstill rarely reported and even more rarely punished.

The friendship which deepened between Isabel and the Torzillos allowedthem to work out at last an assured way to save the house at Collarenebri.Jack and Judy took over part of the mortgage payments which lightened theburden on Isabel over the next five years. Jack, an architect, could give Isabeladvice and assistance with building materials to repair and maintain thehouse so that it met the local government requirements which had also beenan issue for her. With the financial pressure eased, her health stabilised andher spirits rising, Isabel began to make her arrangements to go back home.

She was being drawn back by the need to look after her mother and aunt.Her relationship with Celia had always been tense and difficult, so thedecision was not easy, but it increasingly pulled Isabel towards going home:

Isabel: My Mum was starting to show that she was dependent a bit on me.And I could see that my old aunt needed us a lot. I knew I had to gohome and look after her.

And sure enough Lindsay said: ‘Well, look she doesn’t want to livewith me in Thallon, she wants to go home to the Block, she wants youto go home and just get things set-up for her. That’ll be all you have todo and then she’ll be right’. Now poor old Mum used to always rubbishme, and so I wasn’t sure about it. But I went home then just to see whatwas happening, and I could see then that Mum wasn’t very well at all.And that’s how I made up my mind . . . We went home then. And ohwhat a mess! But she said: ‘Isn’t it funny, the black sheep always comeback to you too, hey?’ I said: ‘Oh he’s mad, Dad always said the blacksheep is mad’. And she said: ‘Yes, he used to always say that he wouldn’tkill a black sheep because he reckoned he was a mad sheep’.

And it turned out to be important that I was there, because theothers used to take her out too much . . . and gosh, some of the thingsthat I went through in that little section of my life! I’d be saying: ‘Don’tgive Mum any grog’. And they used to take her over there and get herdrunk and they used to say: ‘She’s got to have some kind of life’. Thenthey’d bring her home to me, carry her inside and then she’d be real

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 156

Page 175: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

selfconscious about coming home to me, because she knew I didn’tdrink. And then I’d say: ‘Oh here’s my mother back again’. And sheused to say: ‘I shouldn’t have went with them. I shouldn’t have went’.And I’d say: ‘Oh Mum you should’ve went because you had a nice day’.

I could see that what I thought about her having a day out matteredto her. And I could see what they were doing and they’d say: ‘Oh, whatelse can we do? She likes to have a drink with us and stuff’. But it washard times. I used to think: ‘Oh just when she looked so well, they’dcome over and get her over there and then when she’d come backshe’d have to start all over again’.

Clare was having a terrible time then, too, with her bloke. AndRosie wasn’t there. See, Jimmy Fernando never used to let her comehome from Leeton. And that was a hard time too—watching Mumwanting her to come home and she never could.

Settling in to Collarenebri again in 1978 was both easy and hard for Isabel.In many ways it was a simple return home, but in other ways everything wasunfamiliar.

She had come back to the often troubling relationship with her mother.It was unsettling for her to have to revise her reservations about Celia andsometimes heart-wrenching to cover the distance between them. Adding tothe strains of living daily with her mother again after so many years wasIsabel’s almost comical frustration in watching Celia give up smoking, appar-ently effortlessly, while Isabel herself still struggled to do it. Isabel’s daughter,Brenda, had followed her mother home with her own young children, and hercheerful support and attention to Celia made all of their lives much easier.Isabel found herself reaching a new understanding of the way her mother’sdifficult and unpredictable personality had been shaped by her troubled past.Eventually it brought her a new peace as she came to accept her mother fullyfor the first time:

Isabel: And it turned out that I was happy that I went back there and didthat job. I went back there some time in September and it was in Junethe next year that we lost her. And I don’t think I intended to settledown there again, but then I just did.

Isabel was different herself. In a demonstration of her new confidence, Isabellearnt to drive. Now single again, without young children to look after for thefirst time for years and with the financial burden of the house on the Blockeased for her, she had a freedom and sense of independence which reinforcedher newly developed assurance in politics.

Reinventing Isabel


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 157

Page 176: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel had thought she was leaving Collarenebri behind when sheheaded for Sydney in 1972 looking for better educational opportunities forher children. But as it turned out, her son Tony came to feel that the realvalue of Sydney was in the learning opportunities it had given to Isabelherself:

Tony: I think it was good for her, because when she was down there, allthese housing companies were starting to be developed and she took thatknowledge straight back to Colle and set up Mangankali. So I thinkthat it furthered her education as far as getting funding and how to setup housing companies, and that sort of thing. She was the one who gotthe win out of it eventually.

Isabel’s Sydney experience and widening knowledge of the networks of politi-cal power and lobbying gave her resources far beyond any she had previouslyhad in her dealings with the power of the town.

And she had allies. Along with her old comrades in the town, likeDoreen Hynch, Jessie Hall and Roy and Josie Thorne, Isabel found that Joeand Isobelle in Wee Waa didn’t seem so far away now. Their youngestdaughter Karen was living with them there and had matured into a strongand determined young activist in her own right. Barbara, too, was back in thebush, as the co-ordinator of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service (WALS)in Dubbo, and while it did not cover the Walgett–Collarenebri area, WALS’resources and its group of dedicated young lawyers were always available toback Isabel up.

Barbara was implementing innovative social initiatives in legal work toadvance land and cultural rights and to protect women and young people.These goals were closely in line with, and had been inspired by, Isabel’s ownpriorities. While they did not always work on the same issues, Barbara andIsabel were frequently in contact and acted to support each other. There weretensions between WALS and the leadership of the older, Sydney-basedAboriginal Legal Service (ALS), which still operated the Walgett office andso provided lawyers for Collarenebri courts. However, one of the ALS lawyersbased in Walgett, John Terry, grew close to Isabel, becoming a stalwartdefender for her against the continuing police harassment in the area, and atrusted friend.

Isabel, as always, insisted on working with everyone, negotiating her waythrough the minefield of difficult and sensitive egos involved on every side—black and white—and trying to ensure that the interests of CollarenebriMurris were met by all the legal services. Another friend, Peter Thompson,was living at Wilcannia with Edna Hunter, from a Paakantji family.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 158

Page 177: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman


Old friends at Colle c. 1980: from left, Auntie Maggie, Clare, Pansy, Nanna PearlieMason and Josie Thorne (Nanna Pearlie’s daughter).

Roy Thorne.

Reinventing Isabel

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 159

Page 178: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

He continued to work creatively in nurturing strong community control ofhousing, the reassertion of cultural control over land and the developmentof language teaching programs, all areas which offered valuable experiencesand resources for Isabel and her community as well.

As she settled back into Collarenebri with a deepening sense of assur-ance and direction, Isabel found herself exploring a relationship which wasboth new and old. She had been childhood playmates with Ted Thorne inthe days of the Old Camp and they had shared a strong attraction as teen-agers. Events had overtaken and separated them, and they had each gone onto other long-term relationships. But when Isabel returned to the town, Tedwas back there as well, also single again and taking serious steps to controlthe drinking with which he had had to grapple for much of his life. He andIsabel came together in a relationship which built on the deep affection theyhad held for each other over the years. By 1979 they were living together andthey wrote to each other constantly if they were separated when Ted wentshearing. Few of Isabel’s letters have survived, but she carefully kept a numberof the letters Ted wrote to her when he was working in the sheds. His letterswere short and affectionate, sharing day-to-day incidents and worries:concern over a workmate gone missing, notes about payments on householdbills, stories about eccentric bosses. And each letter is threaded through withendearments and warmth.

Isabel Flick


At a dance in Collarenebri, 1979. From left, Ted Thorne, Amy, Isabel and her brotherLindsay.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 160

Page 179: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Long weekend 1979My Dear Bell, So pleased to hear from you and to know you are all well at home. Howare Warren and Ray getting on? They were both a bit sick when I left . . .How much do we owe on the mower? Next time I send some money youmight put a few dollars on it . . . The peach tree must be in full bloom bynow and the mulberry tree. Is it living? . . . My home is in Colly with myBell. Be waiting for me when I get home.I will say Cheerio Darl.Looking forward to seeing you again, love,Edward

This relationship allowed Isabel to be herself, an activist and a traveller, butalso a lover, a mother and grandmother. Each role was nurtured by the warmand steadfast support which Ted gave unstintingly.

Reinventing Isabel


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 161

Page 180: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

8Changing Collarenebri, 1980s

If Isabel had changed, Collarenebri was different too. The sense ofmomentum in the struggle to gain decent washing facilities on the Wollaihad raised everyone’s expectations. Communities were starting to hope thatFederal and State funds could be directed into effective local programs tomake a real difference to life in the bush. And there was new structure in theAboriginal community in Colle. The Mangankali housing company offered aformal organisation for managing the planning and implementation processfor a project to really change the way people lived and related to each otherand the town.

But Collarenebri remained a hard town, where petty segregation persistedand where the Aboriginal community was wracked by the effects of poverty,poor health and alcoholism. In some ways it was harder. The pastoraldownturn had hit bottom now and jobs in the pastoral industry had all butdisappeared except for a small amount of shearing and rouseabout work. Theseasonal chipping work was about all that was around, apart from some workwith the local government councils or with the few funded Aboriginal organ-isations. With no Aboriginal people employed on properties anymore, theland was now closed off behind fences and locked gates, so it was harder andharder to gain any access at all to places which had been important in the livesof Isabel and her generation, let alone to that of her parents and the olderpeople in Collarenebri.

With less employment than before, there was a tense undercurrent ofanxiety despite the new organisations and hopes for funding for community


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 162

Page 181: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

programs. Unemployment relief was ensuring some income into Aboriginalfamilies, but as it was in the form of individual payments it was often beingchannelled into alcohol abuse. More young people and women were nowdrinking in the town and the burden of care for grandchildren fell ontograndmothers of Isabel’s age. And alcohol, like poverty, worsened domesticdisputes, increasing the violence which women and children were facing.

The potential for factional rivalries and jealousies based around familynetworks was always present and it often worsened as the new funding forAboriginal organisations promised much but seldom delivered enoughresources to really make changes for everyone. Too often, increasingly impov-erished communities like Collarenebri saw their divisions deepening as theywere made to fight over a single house or two, when everyone on the com-munity was in real need of urgent housing improvements. The resultingfrustration might cause people to collapse into apathy or boil over into conflict.So while Isabel came back into the community in some ways refreshed, she wasnot faced with an easier situation than when she had left.

The idea of building new houses was born during the ablution blockcampaign and Isabel seemed the obvious person to manage the process onceshe had returned home. But like her own children, the next generation hadby now grown to adulthood and there were a number of young people inCollarenebri whom Isabel felt could be encouraged to take up active roles.She was insistent that her role in Mangankali was temporary and the goalmust be to rapidly allow these young people to gain the experience she hadlearned in the tough town forums as a young mother. Graham Hynch, RoslynMcGregor and Keith Thorne were just a few of the young people she encour-aged to take up active roles. She grabbed opportunities for them to learn bytaking them into meetings, encouraging them to speak up and to take onformal roles in the local organisations. Tranby was committed to supportingrural communities and offered Aboriginals a chance for formal accreditation;so Isabel sent down a series of young people to take part in the college’sflexibly-run Community Development, Literacy and Business Skills courses.Training, formal and informal, became the necessary central element for eachof the programs she ushered into existence.

When Isabel returned to Collarenebri, the Federal government providedfunding for Mangankali, but it was strictly for housing purchases in town-ships. The funding was trickling through with only enough for single housesat a time, or even less. The communities in the western area were organisedinto a region which met regularly at Bourke with the Aboriginal Develop-ment Corporation, the ADC, a Federal body which had been established bythe Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) to handle housing and enter-prise funding. The facade of community participation was thin—in fact, the

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 163

Page 182: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

ADC was allocating funds, rather than asking communities to decide onpurposes and budgets. And they were making community representativescompete for the little amounts available. Although there were 10 communi-ties in the region, only about five houses were being budgetted for each year.So the results were meagre: a community might receive the funds to purchasea house, but only if they spread their purchase over two financial years. AsIsabel’s son Tony remembers: ‘We were going down there fighting for halfhouses!’ Tony returned to Collarenebri in 1980, by which time Mangankalihad gained two houses, each transported in modules and assembled on site,with a further house to be purchased during the year.

But Isabel had become concerned that this process wasn’t achieving anytraining benefit for young people. She began to lobby ADC for a widerplanning strategy, to secure funds to allow a number of houses to be built insequence, using local apprentices, thus ensuring skills in the community werebuilt up as well as houses. The outcome was an important concession. ADChousing allocation was to be linked with NSW State Aboriginal Employmentstrategy funding, to allow guaranteed wages to Collarenebri for two appren-tices to be taken on over three years. Barry Murray and Tony Flick wereaccepted as the apprentices and the building program began. A local buildersigned on the apprentices, tendering for the first building at a modest price;but his prices escalated alarmingly for the next house and even more so forthe one after. But funding for houses became caught up in another issue.

Tony had returned to Collarenebri because of family tragedy. He and hiswife, Peggy Peters, also from Collarenebri, had stayed working in Sydneywhen Isabel returned home. But in 1980 they had barely welcomed theirsecond child, Sally Ann, when they lost her to Sudden Infant DeathSyndrome. Grieving, they brought her to Collarenebri to be buried. Isabeland Aub put aside their own differences to stand with Tony during thefuneral, supporting their son through this tragedy. Tony and Peggy decidedthat it was time for them to move back home where they would be close toSally and to their families. With the housing funding slowly coming through,it looked at least as if there would be work for Tony.

There were other funerals that year and, like Sally’s burial, they could becarried out only if the weather was dry, because otherwise the road to thecemetery was an impassable black soil bog. Many funerals had to be delayedin wet weather—increasing the bereaved family’s distress—because justgetting to the cemetery could take hours through the mud. It had beenIsabel’s priority to find resources to have the cemetery fenced and cared forbut none of this mattered if people couldn’t get to the graveside at all.As early as 1975, Mangankali had put in submissions to upgrade the three-kilometre track from the Mungindi road across a pastoral lease to the

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:55 AM Page 164

Page 183: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

cemetery, making it an all-weather road. This meant excavation, re-formingthe road, dumping a significant amount of rock to stabilise it and thentopping it with crushed rock to ensure a good surface in the wet. The shirecouncil at Walgett was reluctant to take any responsibility for it, using theexcuses that the track ran across private pastoral lease and that the cemeterywas not regarded as the ‘real’ public one. Yet this road was the only access toan active cemetery which was used by around a third of the population ofCollarenebri! The Mangankali call for an all-weather road was really ademand to respect the rights of the Aboriginal population to bury their deadwith dignity and meaning.

Mangankali submissions had been bounced around from one section of theFederal and State governments to another: the cemetery road was not consid-ered cultural enough for an Arts grant, but neither was it recognisable for‘housing’ or ‘enterprise’ funding. None of the official Aboriginal Affairs depart-ments could see why they should support the cost of bulldozing and surfacing atrack that went out of town and across the scrub. The NSW National ParksService had responded by registering the cemetery as an ‘Aboriginal Place’,based on its anthropologist Horrie Creamer’s careful report in 1977.

But there was no other government response at all. The Mangankalicommittee was increasingly frustrated. Then in November, 1980, Linda Hall’syoung son, Howard, died suddenly and the tragedy of his death was deepened

Changing Collarenebri


Working on the cemetery: Isabel, her son Aub and his partner Pam, erecting ReturnedServicemen’s plaques, c. 1979.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 165

Page 184: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

because heavy rains delayed the process of grave digging and of holding thefuneral. But the distress pushed Isabel and the community into formulating aunique strategy. Tony and Isabel have both remembered aspects of thiscampaign:

Tony: She’d always been chasing the funds to get that road fixed, but itwas because of the close affinity she had with Linda Hall that it really gotgoing. When we buried Linda’s youngest son, Howard, he was 23 at thetime. It was pouring rain and we basically had to carry him from theMungindi road to the cemetery, it was just that boggy. And that reallygot under Mum’s skin and it was the extra motivation she needed.

Isabel: Now we really had to fight for that money to get the cemeteryroad done. I had meetings in everybody’s house and said: ‘This is what Ithink, but whatever you fellas say has got to go’. And the way we did itthen, we said: ‘Look it’s not much use for us talking about building housesand planning anything else if we can’t address that issue that affects allof us. So we’re going to refuse to take any funding from the DAA untilwe get that rectified, because that’s more important to us than thehouses’. And everybody agreed to that. And I said: ‘Well, you’ve got toknow that when these people come over here to talk about this issue,we’ve all got to be as one’. And that’s what happened.

Tony: We used to go to the programming conferences in Bourke andthey’d be offering everyone houses and half-houses and all that. And shejust sat back on her haunches and said, ‘No, we won’t be taking nohouses and no money for houses until we get money for the cemeteryroad’. And she kept that up for two rounds of meetings.

Isabel: I wrote a letter to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs telling himthat that was our position. Then I rang and I said: ‘So what’s the big gossipon us then? Because we won’t be getting any funding, will we?’ And hesaid: ‘Oh, it caused a bit of concern because they can’t understand whatyou are on about. Because you can’t put it under Enterprise . . . they can’tfind a category to put it under’. And I said: ‘Well it’s a need . . . a culturalneed for us as a group of people. And we can’t address anything else untilwe have that done’. And so they said: ‘Well you can’t put it underHousing, you can’t put it under Enterprise . . .’ And they were goingthrough trying to find all the little loopholes that they could put it under.

So I said: ‘We have to make recommendations somewhere forchanges’.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 166

Page 185: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Tony: By the third programming conference, the other community repshad had a gutful too, and it was all decided before they even went intothe meeting. Whether they’d decided it when they’d played cards beforeit or not I don’t know, but that was more likely! So the third one, allthe community reps refused to take their budgets or allocations too, untilthe cemetery road was done. They actually took a delegation to Canberraabout it to get it all changed. There was Tombo Winters from Bre,Georgie Rose from Walgett, Yvonne Howath from Bourke, and the mobfrom Goodooga, Lightning Ridge, Weilmoringle . . . all in that onegroup—it was basically all the communities.

The communities held firm and finally it was the State Government whichbacked down, at last taking seriously the fact that this community cared evenmore about their cemetery than they did about the houses they had beenfighting for now for over a decade. The Wran Labor Government had just setup a new Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. It was headed up by Aboriginalbarrister Pat O’Shane, who knew Isabel and her family well from their periodin Sydney and who, for the first time, brought an Aboriginal perspective toNew South Wales decisions on funding priorities.

Changing Collarenebri


A familiar scene: Isabel in 1979 during a break in a meeting, having a card game withDebbie Rose (from Walgett, George and Mavis Rose’s daughter) and Bob Bellear (witha winning card).

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 167

Page 186: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But still the problems hadn’t stopped, because Walgett Shire Councilnow insisted on a new, longer and more expensive route for the cemeteryroad, turning off the Mungindi road further away from the town. The Shirewas being obstructive because, so Isabel believed, it wanted the contract todo the road work and hoped that if it held out long enough the communitywould give up. The Shire engineer confided to Isabel that he couldn’t see anystructural reason for the alteration in the route, and grudgingly conceded thathis role was to inspect the Mangankali work, not to insist on a councilcontract. So over a weekend, a Murri contractor from Narromine wasengaged, came in and did the work, soundly and efficiently. Before anyonecould raise another objection, the road was ready to be opened!

The cemetery road was an extraordinary victory. Very few communitieshave seriously rejected funding to press their demand for recognition of culturalrights. So the opening celebration in August 1983 was a deeply moving demon-stration of the community’s commitment and solidarity. Isabel spoke powerfullyof the community’s sustained efforts since 1975 to take control of their circum-stances and achieve the goals they had set for themselves. She put the road ina far wider perspective than any government had probably seen it: ‘Thecemetery is a place where Murris can feel at peace, as we are surrounded by ourloved ones in spirit and we are able to strengthen our affinity with our land’.1

For Isabel, the cemetery was not a lonely remnant of lost tribal lands. Instead,it was a symbol of the continuing presence of the whole of Gamilaraay land andof its continuing significance to its Murri owners. So she saw the decision bygovernment to fund the road and recognise the importance of the cemetery asa major step towards recognising Aboriginal land and Aboriginal owners.

Isabel Flick


Opening of the all-weather roadto the Aboriginal Cemetery, 1983.From left: Paul Torzillo (just outof frame) whom Isabel invited tomake a speech, Isabel, WinkieOrcher, Ted Thorne (holdingflag), Dezi Flick-Kennedy,Georgette (Amy’s daughter) andKylie Orcher.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 168

Page 187: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Once the funds for housing in Collarenebri had been freed up again in1982, the question of where the next houses might go was again raised. Manypeople needed housing, far more than would be able to have one if the ratewas one or even two houses a year. So the competition and jealousy overhouse allocation could be intense. Isabel made it clear to her family that shewould not be seen to be favouring them. Tony remembers:

Tony: I think that was probably the only unfair thing that Mum ever didto us kids. She’d always told us when she was in Mangankali and gettinghouses, she said, ‘Don’t you ever apply for a house, because I won’t begiving you one. Because I don’t ever want the community coming to mesaying: ‘‘You housed your own people!’’ ’ That’s why we never ever got ahouse off her! We weren’t even allowed to put in an application. But thatwas her stance and she stood by it. So I got my house through mainstreamDepartment of Housing and the rest had just to do what they could do.

Murris in Collarenebri needed houses both in town and on the Wollai, butthe Federal government had been adamant that no ADC housing funds wereto go to building houses on Reserve land. The basic policy was an assimila-tionist one, that ultimately Aboriginal people would be ‘better off ’ forced outof the segregrated areas of Reserve living and into the general community,to live ‘pepperpotted’ among non-Aboriginal people. The major need inCollarenebri, however, was on the Wollai where every single family wasliving in inadequate houses without any infrastructure at all—without water,sewage or electricity.

Changing Collarenebri


Opening of the all-weather roadto the Aboriginal Cemetery, 1983.Isabel annotated this picture ofherself and Ted: ‘ ‘‘New Road’’Old People!’

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 169

Page 188: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel realised that to develop a campaign to build enough houses on theReserve, the key, just like the ablution block campaign, was going to becommunity confidence that the housing would meet people’s needs andinterests. So talking around was essential. Long hours of listening, sitting inthe park or at a bingo game on the flat, or fishing on the riverbank, wascrucial to working out what sort of housing would work for the people of theWollai. Never having lived on the Reserve itself, despite her early years onthe Old Camp, Isabel was careful not to presume to represent the Wollaiunless she had been given authority to do so. And there continued to befamilies with whom she could not speak comfortably and she knew it wasnecessary to make sure they felt fully consulted as well. The sensitivities ofsmall town life and long memories meant the consultations had to be, as theyhad been for the ablution block, carefully considered and planned, delegatedand patiently repeated till it was certain everyone was happy.

What was clear was that the community had some important goals. Onewas a flexible approach to laying out the houses, so that kinship relationshipsand privacy were more important than the right-angled grid pattern thatwhite planners favoured. Another was a high degree of community input intohousing design, so that the houses met not only each family’s needs, but alsomade sense in the local environment. And for Isabel as well as everyone else,there had to be a very high degree of Aboriginal employment and trainingduring the building process to maximise long-term benefit for the community.

Isabel had been watching the early housing projects carefully at Wilcan-nia where Peter Thompson had been involved, at Roseby Park in JackoCampbell’s Jerrinja community and even earlier, at Bourke just down theBarwon River. The things people at Colle wanted were similar to the demandsmade by the other communities, but each of the others had found these goalshard to achieve. A big issue for all of them had been the refusal by govern-ments to allow houses to be built on Reserves.

Bureaucrats and councils were determined to achieve grid-streetpatterns, arguing that it led to efficient service delivery, but really seeking toimpose a very western form of discipline and order. Funding bodies arguedthat it was cheaper if everything was the same, which made it hard to planindividual differences between houses or to meet local conditions. Andfinally, the employment and training of Aboriginal people was always sacri-ficed to tight schedules and even tighter budgets. As Paul Torzillo’s work hasdemonstrated, much of the building done by local white contractors forAboriginal projects then and later was poorly supervised, shoddy or just plainnegligent, leading to severe problems during normal family use; but bureau-crats still kept insisting that white builders would be more efficient andcompetent than Aboriginal ones.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 170

Page 189: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

So Isabel and the Mangankali committee found it tough going. Theykept on fighting, just like they had for the ablution block, through a mixtureof dogged stubbornness and unquenchable optimism. I remember ringingIsabel once after they had received another knockback. When I asked howshe was, she joked with characteristic cheerfulness in the face of bad luck:‘Well, I’m stiff. If I was any stiffer I’d be dead!’ She explained years later howobstructions had been thrown in their way:

Isabel: See, they didn’t want Aboriginal people to live on the Reserve,they didn’t want us to build there. The Shire kept saying that it was afloodprone area, and so then I got the statistics about where the floodwaters actually came into the town. And sure it cut the Reserve off, butif they built the houses four foot up they could deal with it. And then weshowed another part where it came right up in the streets of the townitself; so if you declare the Reserve floodprone, then you’ve got to declarethat town area floodprone as well.

They didn’t want to say who was stopping it on the Shire, so I said:‘I want to be at the next meeting because I want to determine whetherwe can build there or not!’ So I wrote the letters to get permission to goto that meeting. When it came up it turned out that it was our council-lor, the one representing us, who was saying that houses shouldn’t go onthe Reserve because of the floods. But I don’t think that it was for thatreason, he didn’t care about that too much. I think he was afraid we weregoing to build our own shops over there. That was in my mind to do that,and maybe he’d heard about it because I’d said to the people: ‘You canbuild your own shop here’.

We built a big shed there that could have done that. But the peopleon the Wollai didn’t plan to go that way anyhow, so what I thoughtdidn’t make any difference. I could only suggest something. When thatconfrontation came up again I wasn’t feeling so bad about it, because Icould say then, ‘What’s the argument now? Because this is what we planto do’. And I still say that if we want to build a shop there we certainlyshould be able to. And then of course there was no further argument inthat. So that was finalised. But it was only after two years of trying tonegotiate with the Shire to build on there, because this is what theyrequired and all that, that we found out what the real issues were. Theycould’ve said that straight out in the first place, but they were hopingthat if they put us off long enough the people would decide to go uptown.I don’t know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Peoplewanted to live there, but all the younger ones will probably want to beuptown, I don’t know.

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 171

Page 190: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But that confrontation over whether we could build on the Reserveat Colle in the early 1980s changed the whole thing in that DAA region.There were nine reserves there then, and after that everyone, likeBourke and Goodooga, was able to build on their Reserve.

The funding situation began to look up because the New South WalesGovernment, with Aboriginal direction in its Ministry, finally shifted itsposition on whether to fund houses on Reserves. Isabel had been in touchwith Pat O’Shane and her officers about the community desires in Colle, andit was clear that the most urgent need was on the Wollai. The Ministry’spathfinding project was called the Five Communities Program andCollarenebri became one of these five. In this (shortlived) atmosphere ofattention to community wishes, Mangankali was able to press its demands.Tony was involved on the committee at Mangankali and remembers theconsultation with the community:

Tony: We had a fair bit to do with it, basically to design the houses andthe locations of them, because every family wanted their own little turfand to be kept in their own family groups. It was a pretty new thing. TheMinistry’s architects came up there to Colle, and we went around. They

Isabel Flick


Isabel puts the case for new houses on the Wollai reserve to a New South WalesParliamentary committee, including Barney French (ALP MLA) and Ron Mulock (ALPDeputy Premier), c. 1983. The existing Reserve tin house can be seen in the background.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 172

Page 191: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

had the basic design to start with and we’d go and sit down with peopleon the mission and say: ‘What else do you need in this?’ But becausethey wouldn’t say anything, sometimes we’d have had more input thanthey would have had. That’s how all them places got sleep-outs, justtypical things that Mum saw might be wanted in them. And like thewalls had to be strong, made of brick and made sure that inside wastough; she knew what they were going to be like and they had to standthe test of time. And they’re still in good nick actually!

While they did not gain as much individual control over house planningas they had hoped, the community could make some of the fundamentaldecisions about house designs. The new streets on the Wollai were curvedto allow the houses to be sited where each family chose, in proximity torelations but with enough distance for privacy. Perhaps the most importantdesign decision to tailor the housing to the location was that each house wasbuilt up high on its own mound, making them all safe during even majorfloods.

But it was not without conflict within the community. The Reserve wasdominated by one man whose relations made up the majority of Wollai resi-dents. He was antagonistic to any homes being built for those residents whowere not from his extended family, and resisted a planned layout whichplaced houses at any distance from the main group, as he knew they would befor the remaining families. As Tony remembers:

Tony: Well this fella ran the Reserve; he wanted all the houses down hisfamily’s end, the bottom end. But me and Mum stood and argued withhim. And we actually bluffed him, cause we said: ‘No, they said if theydon’t put one house up the top for the Lambs, they’re not going to putnone here, none on the Reserve at all’. So he said, ‘Okay they can haveone, but they’re not getting no more’. And that’s how come KeithieLamb got his place up that end where he got it now. That was the onlyone that ever got built up there.

A key advantage in this project, as Isabel saw it, was that training was to bea central component from the start. The first two Mangankali apprenticeshad faced problems of isolation both in Colle itself and when they travelledto Dubbo to sit in on their trade classes. The Five Communities training wasmuch better organised, linking the apprentices from each of the five com-munities in joint classes in a program managed by TAFE in Moree. Sevenyoung Collarenebri Murris were employed as apprentices on the Wollai, anda number of them went on to gain advanced skills. Achieving this degree of

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 173

Page 192: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Aboriginal employment was a major win for the community and the work-manship with which their jobs were done is evident in the houses’ historysince their completion. In a 2002 review of the projects built in the FiveCommunities program, the Collarenebri housing was found to be in need ofrepair, but all the houses are still standing and holding up far better thanhouses built in some of the other four towns.2

The process of managing the housing project had been weighing heavilyon Isabel. She had strong views about the importance of communitymanagers acting in transparent and principled ways to ensure that com-munity wishes were carried out once funding had been achieved. Isabel hadhoped that younger Murris, who had been able to have more schooling thanshe had, would be able to take up the administrative tasks, but this was nothappening as quickly as she needed. Tony remembers that in this period, theaccounting for Mangankali was ‘basically Mum, and then just the accountantin Walgett once a year’. So, with the help of Tranby College, Isabel labori-ously taught herself bookkeeping, kept meticulous records of expenditure andtook careful minutes of meetings so she could implement decisions.

Isabel Flick


Six of the seven young Colle men in training on the building site of the new housing onthe Wollai 1987, including (from left): Michael and Frank Murray, Tony, Michael andPeter Adams, and Noel Mason, Clare’s youngest son and Isabel’s nephew.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 174

Page 193: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

This was extraordinarily demanding work for a woman who had beenexcluded from basic education. Isabel had found that she preferred campaign-ing, planning and educating to the day-to-day detailed, monotonous work ofadministration. But as well, she was beginning to suspect that if she stayed inthe active managerial role at Mangankali, other community members andparticularly the younger ones, would hang back from taking leadership roles.She had put a huge amount of energy into both the housing project on theWollai and the cemetery road upgrading, and the deaths and tragedy withinher family had taken a great toll. She was recognising that she needed tomeasure out her energy, and she was by this time involved in a number ofother activities. So she had decided that this was the time to retire fromactive involvement in Mangankali, making way for younger people to take uproles shaping their community. On the same day that the cemetery road wasdeclared open in August 1983, Isabel announced her formal retirement,sketching out a future for herself as an occasional elder-statesperson, but nolonger a day-to-day leader.

Of course, Isabel hardly settled into inactivity. At her busiest time atMangankali in 1981, she had still been eager to support Joe and Isobelle asthey tried to make a home in Wee Waa. They found themselves in growingconflict with the local government authorities there. Their long battle to getdecent conditions for the seasonal influx of cotton chippers had continued,with only marginal and grudging improvements to the camps like Tulladunnaand to workers’ conditions in the fields. Joe felt strongly that the goals of bothlocal government and cotton farmers were to do just enough to keep Murriorganisations quiet, but not to make real changes to working and livingconditions.

The final straw came when the local council decided to close Tulladunnato camping altogether in autumn of 1981, when the cotton season ended.The decision was claimed by Council as a great step towards improvingAboriginal conditions, because it was paired with the announcement of anew camping ground to be ready for the next summer, with well-servicedcamp sites and good drinking water and washing facilities. The problem withthe proudly announced new site, called ‘The Piggery’—because it was next toan old pig farm—was that it was five miles out of town, and without anyregular public transport. So for Joe, and many of the Aboriginal residents andincoming chippers, the new site looked like a very old strategy. They knewthat the Council regarded the chippers’ camping ground on Tulladunna as aneyesore because it was so close to town. They believed the Council haddecided to act to keep the blacks out of town by forcing them to shift out toa distant Reserve and by restricting their practical access to the main streets

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 175

Page 194: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

and shops. They had seen this too many times in Collarenebri, in Walgettand in most other rural towns across the state, to be fooled into thinking thatanyone had Aboriginal health and housing conditions at heart.

The Flick family in Wee Waa had stayed heavily involved with thecotton economy. Joe chipped and so did his middle daughter, Patsy, who oftenworked on the fields with her shearer husband Sonny Orcher to raise extramoney at Christmas. They were all vulnerable to the continued questionablepesticide and herbicide spraying practices of the cotton growers. Joe’syoungest daughter, Karen, had come back after her HSC at boarding schoolto become active in the community, as well as to take on the rearing up ofher baby niece, Kulin. As a young mother, Karen was particularly worried bythe issues of industrial contamination of the town’s residents. And they wereall acutely aware of the history of forced movements by which Aboriginalpeople had been shunted around the state at the convenience of whiteemployers or the Welfare Board. Joe’s wife Isobelle remembered, as a child ofeight, the brutal dislocation from her home at Angledool when the commu-nity was forced at gunpoint onto semi-trailers to be trucked to Brewarrina in1936. When the ‘No Camping’ signs went up at Tulladunna, the Flicks feltstrongly that this was the time to take a stand.

They were supported by most of the other Aboriginal families in thetownship, apart from those who were going to be employed as caretakers at thePiggery site. Particularly reliable supporters were Arthur and Leila Murray, whohad also come from Collarenebri, hoping to find a better, less racially segregatedplace to raise their young family. But like the Flicks, they had found that therising conflict over cotton had soured the township’s atmosphere. The familywas troubled by the loss of stable employment in the area. The cotton industryappeared to be flourishing, but it offered only casual and short-term work.Alcohol abuse became a problem for the family, for younger as well as the oldermembers, and their sense of frustration was intense. Arthur was outspoken andthe family were eager to take a role in achieving reform and better conditionsfor the future. A number of people in the old Wee Waa Advancement Associ-ation began to think about a way to stop the forced closure of Tulladunna, andthey decided on an occupation of the site. They would challenge the ‘NoCamping’ signs, and re-open Tulladunna for Aborigines.

They were supported, too, by the networks in the region of people likeIsabel, who had had so much experience now of their families and communi-ties on the cotton fields, and were beginning to feel alarmed at what appearedto be a spread of the industry into other blacksoil areas like Collarenebri. Andthe organisations of the region also brought in supporters, notably the WesternAboriginal Legal Service, where Barbara Flick was now co-ordinator, andwhose staff and lawyers were happy to be participants and legal observers.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 176

Page 195: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Tranby too, which by now had a number of Collarenebri students, organised tosend a bus with student and staff supporters for the occupation planned forJune. Just as the organising process was accelerating, an industrial conflictwithin Telecom, the sole phone utility, began to severely disrupt communi-cation, illustrating once again how isolated by distance the north-western ruralareas were. And while the political activity around the planned occupation waswell underway, it was during emergencies that the need for phones was acute.

That became clear with the tragic death of Eddie Murray on 12 June1981. Just days before the occupation of Tulladunna was to go ahead, Arthurand Leila’s 21-year-old son Eddie was arrested by a passing police car afterbeing found heavily intoxicated in the main street. Instead of being takenhome, which was an option open to the police—although they rarely usedit—he was taken to Wee Waa police lockup. Within one hour he was dead,having died, according to the police, by hanging himself in the cell with tornbed blankets. His family was eventually informed after a considerable lapse oftime. Shocked and in disbelief, Eddie’s distraught father Arthur suffered acollapse thought to be a heart attack. Leila called on the Flick family to helpto get out-of-town legal advice, but all the phones were dead.

Eventually, after waiting hours, a poor phone service was restored andIsobelle Flick managed to get one call away. It was to our number and I tookthe call, which was so faint and heavily distorted with static that it took mea while to work out who was speaking to me, let alone to make out thedisturbing story Isobelle was trying to tell. I was asked to reach Arthur’s sisterin Sydney by car urgently, and to spread the news to any other relatives shesuggested, and at the same time to try to get legal advice about how to takethe crucial initial steps to organise an independent autopsy. It was distressing,but simple enough, to drive around to give the sad news to Eddie’s relations.But with only an intermittent phone service operating, it was a nightmaretrying to reach a lawyer in either Sydney or the bush, and to get an in-dependent doctor to travel to Wee Waa to conduct the autopsy. I waseventually able to pass the message through to the ALS office in Moreewhich was supposed to manage the investigation, but problems within thatoffice led to further delays and confused decisions. In this sad case, whichdeveloped to have so many complexities, the messy handling of Eddie’sautopsy was to continue to cause many problems.

The occupation of Tulladunna went ahead, although now with a heaviersense of sombre urgency as the organisers decided they must highlight thequestion of police involvement with Eddie Murray’s death as much as theissues around land, residential freedom and cotton contamination. The tentswent up on a Friday night, just behind the ‘No Camping By Order of theCouncil’ signs, and soon the bright black, red and yellow of the Aboriginal

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 177

Page 196: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

flag obscured the signs themselves. Isabel came across from Collarenebri totake her place in the central core of the occupation camp. The weather wasdry and sunny but the temperature was freezing and the nights frosty. Blackfamilies came out from town and the cars rolled in from Collarenebri,Walgett, Brewarrina, Dubbo and Boggabilla, as well as the Tranby bus fromSydney. There were often 30 or 40 people at any one time during the day,coming and going, but the core families camping in the tents on Tulladunnawere the Flick families and the Murrays.

Even within the tents, the ground was hard and cold under the sleepingbags, and we were all icy stiff as we woke into the early morning brightness.But the fire was blazing. Old shearers like Joe were always up before dawn,and the billy was their first priority. Those early breakfasts around the firewere magic. Isabel, her sisters-in-law Isobelle and Doreen Hynch, Joe and theothers, were easy together as only old friends are, joking, recalling ribaldstories about each other and planning strategies over the hot steaming tea.They included their younger family members in the jokes, with more funnystories and lots of instructions about everything from getting a man torunning a campaign. And the whitefellas there too, mostly old friends andtrusted lawyers, were around the edges, warmly welcomed and enjoying thebanter, even when they were sometimes the butt of the jokes. There was

Isabel Flick


Tulladunna Occupation, Wee Waa, 1981. Breakfast in camp, including (fom left): Joe,Peter Thompson, Kevin Cook, Isobelle, Barbara, Neil Andrews (Aboriginal LegalService), Julie Whitton, Stephen Fitzpatrick with newspaper (WALS), and Miriki(running), Kevin Cook’s son.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 178

Page 197: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

plenty to do, press releases to be drafted and issued, interviews to be given byphone to radio and newspapers.

Overnight, a wave of graffiti had appeared around town, sprayed not onlyon the bus shelters, the mayor’s store windows and the County Council, butalso on the town’s war memorial, a red brick obelisque standing at the centreof the main intersection. This confrontational targetting was no accident.The lighthearted banter at the campsite was really a way of coping with thepowerful anger felt by the campers. And the war service of their father andgrandfather, Mick, and the dismissive treatment he had received on hisreturn, was never far from the minds of the Flick family when they consid-ered their position in the area. So the words spelled out the deepest issues ofthe decade for Wee Waa—land, police violence and cotton’s poison.

The town map titled ‘Your guide to Wee Waa’ now said as well: ‘RacismKills’. The bus shelter walls read: ‘The Cotton Industry is Killing Wee Waa’and ‘Cotton Industry is destroying our environment’. The Post Office wallssaid: ‘You walk on Aboriginal land’. The war memorial read on one side:‘What kills black babies? Napalm in Vietnam. Cotton Chemicals in WeeWaa’, and on the other, ‘Cops are the Murderers’.

The reaction from the town was muted, but with currents of stronghostility clearly evident. This was particularly after the graffiti appeared onthe war memorial, commented on by local radio and in the paper, but appar-ently without awareness either that Aboriginal people in the area had made

Changing Collarenebri


Tulladunna Occupation 1981: Heather Goodall and Barbara Flick.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 179

Page 198: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

such a disproportionate contribution to the war enlistment in the region, orthat the protesters were so closely related to war veterans. What the townresponse did show was a sense of bewilderment about how to respond to thestrategy of occupying the campsite.

By Sunday afternoon, most of the people from out of town had to go backto work and many Aborigines from town had also gone home, feeling theyhad made their point. But the Flicks and the Murrays stayed, determined tohang on through the week to make it clear that they wanted the campsite re-opened permanently.

Isabel was there with Joe, Isobelle and their family. Barbara and Karenwere doing most of the driving into and out of town, carrying press releases into be sent, in these days before mobile phones, and bringing groceries out tothe camp. On Tuesday afternoon, all the campers had left the camp for a fewhours for the first time, to have a break and to catch up with other things intheir lives. Just on dusk, Karen and Barbara drove the first car back, with Isabeland some other women. As they turned in off the bitumen and headed arounda wide, smooth curving dirt road towards the camp, they saw movement asfigures darted behind the tents. Isabel remembered what happened next: ‘Thegirls were in the car, Karen was driving and Barbara just happened to catch aglimpse of metal and she was able to pull the steering wheel away. And therewere these steel spikes stuck in the ground . . . just where you’d pick up speed.These great spikes were covered in sand, and they were specially made’.

Shaken, they got out to see what it was they had so narrowly missed, andfound it was a set of roughly made sharp metal spikes, welded together toensure that at least two of the car’s tyres were punctured in a stretch of theroad which most drivers traversed at some speed. They had narrowly avoideda deliberate and potentially lethal trap. The intruders in the camp could beseen watching from the shadows of the tents, and the women decided itwould be unwise to try to go into the camp now. Isabel said: ‘And they camestraight back uptown and got some boys to go back with them, and when theywent back, on both sides of the road there was these two boxes of 42s and,you know, that’s where the massacre would’ve happened. And that’s when wedecided it wasn’t safe to camp down there’.

So they retreated back into town, spending an uneasy night until theycould go out in safety in the early morning. When they did, they found thecamp sacked, food stores stripped, tents pulled down, belongings stolen. ‘Sowe’d go down every morning and set up the flag and the camp every morning.You know, we were closely watched all the time, if we were driving aroundsomeone was behind us all the time. And it was spooky but we knew theyweren’t playing games with us. And it took all that to be able to highlight thefact that something needed to be done about the Deaths in Custody’.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 180

Page 199: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The town, stung by the challenge to its symbols of law and order andnationhood, had shown its ugly face. Would the townspeople have beensurprised to know the campers were the children and grandchildren of warveterans? Would they have understood that the graffiti was a statement thatthe town, its police and its cotton growers had dishonoured the veterans’sacrifices?

Isabel, like the others, was shaken by the deliberate attempt to harmthem. A young Murri in Moree, Cheeky Macintosh, had just recently beenshot dead in an unprovoked attack by white vigilantes, waiting in ambushbehind a tin fence, so the threat at Tulladunna felt very real. Isabel frequentlysaid about these events in later years: ‘We’ve all endangered our lives and thelives of our families and this shouldn’t have happened in this country’.3 Theycontinued to speak out against both the forced closure of the Tulladunna siteand the cotton industry’s impact. But the immediate priority for the Flickfamily, particularly Karen and her aunt Isabel, now became the support of theMurray family as they prepared for the inquest into Eddie’s death.

Isabel took a strong role during the inquest, despite, or perhaps becauseof, the fact that for all the Flick family the case had disturbing overtones ofthe inquest into Lubby’s death. Isabel accompanied the Murray family ontheir many trips from Wee Waa to Sydney to see barristers. Then she was

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel with Leila and Arthur Murray and others at the Coroner’s Court, during the inquestinto the death in police custody of their son, Eddie.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 181

Page 200: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

with them at the inquest, held partly in Narrabri and partly in Sydney. Isabeltestified in support of the family in their belief that Eddie had not given anyindication of depression or intentions to harm himself, and that suicide, intheir long collective experience of their communities, was extremelyuncommon among Aboriginal people.

The Coroner’s inquiry revealed many discrepancies in the police testi-mony. The mode of Eddie’s death involved complex knotting in thick fabricand this raised suspicions because it seemed beyond the capacity of anyone inhis very severe state of intoxication. His clothes had been taken from hisbody at the hospital morgue and burnt, rather than being handed over tohis family. And the Murray family lawyers demonstrated that one policemanhad lied about his whereabouts at the time of Eddie’s death, that this officerhad developed an elaborate story to place himself away from the lockup at thetime by giving a detailed description of picking up his wife when she wasdischarged from hospital. When the family lawyers subpoenaed hospitalrecords, however, it became clear that the discharge had occurred on anotherday altogether. The Murray and Flick families were convinced these matterswould be enough to bring in a strong finding of foul play, but the Coroner’sverdict was simply an ‘open finding’, indicating that the Coroner could findno evidence of either suicide or murder, and thereby closing the door onfurther police investigations.

They returned home to Wee Waa only to be met with intimidation andviolence, as cars prowled around their home at night, threats were shouted atthese ‘troublemakers’ and eventually Arthur and his nephew, Donny, wereattacked in the street and left injured. ‘Whites will not drive us out’, adistressed Arthur declared. ‘My son is buried here and I’ll stay here too!’4

Isabel was deeply suspicious of the Coroner’s finding. She could see theMurray family was fragile and she remembered her own collapse into severedepression after Lubby’s unresolved inquest. She committed herself tosupporting them at any cost and she did so faithfully over the years. KarenFlick also took on the heavy family responsibility and became a consistentadvocate for continued investigation of Eddie Murray’s death. His was onlyone of a cluster of suspicious deaths in police custody or in gaol. The Murrayfamily’s call for their questions to be answered met with immediate empathyfrom the family of John Pat, recently found dead in custody in Perth, andfrom the families of other young men and women whose deaths in custodyhad never been adequately explained.

The momentum was building for a national campaign demanding full,independent investigations into all these suspicious deaths and an end toAboriginal deaths in custody. Isabel turned to her long established source ofsupport in Sydney, Kevin Cook and Tranby.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 182

Page 201: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel: We’d built up a good sort of communication thing, and if I raninto some kind of problem out there I could always ring Kevin and he’dbe running around like scalded chook too. But he’d always find some wayto handle my stuff as well and then we’d analyse it a bit later. So I reckonwe had a really good little unit to keep us going, sort of thing. And Isuppose when you look back that’s probably what Pearl Gibbs and allthat little group had—just that little unit among themselves that you cantrust and so you can get on with the job. It’s all about who you can trustwith some of the stuff, you know, that you’re actually doing, because youcould be making a decision and then it gets out and it gets blown away abit. And then everybody is rowing with everybody.

We had to be always mindful of stuff like that. But especially the pushfor a Royal Commission into the Deaths in Custody was a pretty full-oncause with us. And I think the person that did so much in that was Karen.Karen was the real mover in that. She’s a no-fuss person and she’d hateme for saying it. But she played a heavy role in that. And we knew we hadthat support here in Sydney from Kevin. And when we were talking tothe lawyers, well, it just automatically happened, eh? Kevin did all thelawyer stuff, and getting them together, and we could just come down andit happened.

Karen became a key organiser, along with other Aboriginal women, in acampaign which built up, until in 1988 the Government was forced by publicoutcry to establish a nation-wide Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deathsin Custody.

When the Royal Commission hearings occurred for Eddie Murray’sdeath, Isabel was there again. She repeated her conviction that suicide wasrare among Aborigines, and supported the family’s account of a happy youngman whose problems with alcohol must not be used to allow the Wee Waapolice to avoid serious investigation of the many questionable aspects of theircase. Yet, once again, the conclusion of the Royal Commission was an openfinding. Although recognising the glaring contradictions in the police case,the Commissioner found no firm evidence indicating murder or accidentaldeath. And by this time, a bleak picture had emerged of the tensions in WeeWaa and more was known about the depressive effects of high alcohol intake,both of which offered at least some explanation of why suicide could not beruled out. Like so many of the Royal Commission reports, in this one thepolice were scathingly criticised for their negligence, their contemptuoustreatment of Aboriginal prisoners and for their shoddy record keeping. Butwithout an attribution of blame, the families of the dead were deeply unsat-isfied. The Murray family never abandoned the search for a more just

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 183

Page 202: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

outcome. They moved to Sydney, contributed to the monitoring of the RoyalCommission recommendations to try to ensure less detention and saferconditions, and went on collecting evidence to call for a reopening of theinquest into their son’s death.

Isabel continued to support the Murray family strongly. But over theyears, this struggle had taken on a new poignancy for Isabel. When Lubbydied in 1973, and even when Eddie Murray died in 1981, suicide was indeedvery, very rare in Aboriginal communities in rural New South Wales. Butthere were extremely high rates of trauma and accidental death for youngAboriginal men, many of which, like car crashes in circumstances of severealcohol abuse, could be interpreted as expressions of reckless despair, perhapsin response to years of deteriorating social conditions. But Eddie Murray’sdeath in 1981 initiated a period of high publicity surrounding the apparentsuicide of young Aboriginal people by hanging. More and more cases ofAboriginal suicide by this means did begin to occur, some in custody butmany in family and community settings. Perhaps because of a widespreadsense of frustration and despair, along with an element of copycat bravado,more and more young Aboriginal people tried to take their own lives, untilby the late 1980s it was an undeniable and tragic public cry for help. In May1988, the tragedy hit Isabel’s family too, when her young nephew NoelMason suicided in Collarenebri.

Isabel’s anger at the treatment of Aboriginal people by police and gaolersnever diminished and she was always suspicious of the police, knowing howthey could abuse their power over Aborigines without fear of punishment.She deeply wanted a situation where such abuse would be punished andwhere there really would be justice for all. But from as early as 1984, Isabelhad begun to call for recognition of the crises in which young Aboriginalpeople were finding themselves. She became more vocal in her defence of thechildren of alcoholic parents. She came to see these children as the innocentvictims of the plague of alcoholism. When alcohol programs began to beestablished in the towns along the river, Isabel supported them strongly. Shebecame a director of the Orana Haven Centre, which offered a place to liveout of towns for alcoholics. She invited the Alcoholics Anonymous caravanto be parked on the Block in Collarenebri, and she encouraged her old friendRoy Thorne towards his eventually successful victory over grog.

But she was troubled to see that most of the rehabilitation programsconcentrated on offering shelter and treatment for the alcoholics, butnothing in support for their families. She saw many children who were, to allpractical intents, orphaned by alcohol abuse. Both alcoholic parents might betaken out of town to alcohol rehabilitation residences, but their childrenwere left to roam the streets or to camp with relations as best they could.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 184

Page 203: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

She became much more outspoken, too, in her calls for the recognition of thedamage which domestic violence did to women and children, and the urgentneed for Aboriginal communities to address these problems themselves.Isabel had taken practical, personal actions so often in the 1950s and beyond,when she opened her house as a refuge for women in violent relationships.

But from the mid-1980s she was calling for a community-wide approach,and one driven by the women who were both the victims of family violence,but also the ones who could bring the sense of urgency to make changes.During an important women’s gathering at Winbar in 1985, Isabel said:

What makes us angry is what happens to the children while alcoholicsare being tended to . . . too often it is the grandmothers, aunties, sistersand other women in the community, who end up with the responsibilityof caring for these children. They are at risk, they are the victims of ourcommunities . . . We need funds to organise holiday camps as a matter ofurgency, to be organised by us for the kids . . . There is too much moneyspent on alcoholic rehabilitation and proclaimed places, but not enoughon kids. The only time there’s real interest is when the kids are startingto lag behind in school and they bring the Welfare in, and the kids getcharged with something. And we need to organise refuges for kids, andplaces for families to go in crisis.5

Late in 1999, a book was launched outlining the Murray family’s case for areopening of the inquest into their son Eddie’s death. The Murrays askedIsabel to launch it. Her simple speech resonated with the deep echoes of allthese concerns:

Once again, we have to petition the justice system for justice!Leila and Arthur are to be commended on their determination to

continue to fight for this—not only for their son, but for all Aboriginalpeople. I know the heartache and trauma this family has suffered. I amhonoured to have been able to share this struggle from 12 June 1981, inWee Waa. We’ve all endangered our lives and the lives of our familiesover those years and this shouldn’t have happened in this country. Thisfamily, as do all of our families and communities, has a right to the basichuman right of justice.

Money is not the issue—justice is the issue!

Changing Collarenebri


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 185

Page 204: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

9Land Rights on the Ground, 1983–1993

There might have been enough things to keep Isabel busy after she retiredfrom Mangankali, between the continuing campaign against Black Deaths inCustody and her growing role in the regional women’s movement. But therewas another process gathering momentum: the land rights movement.

Land rights as a political idea in the 1970s drew its meanings from amixture of traditional Aboriginal land relations, western land law, utopiansocialist ideas, and from contemporary Aboriginal aspirations. So it was acomplicated idea which meant different things to different people even beforeit was translated into legislation in 1983. What did it end up meaning in theday-to-day lives of Aboriginal people in rural New South Wales? Isabel’s lifehad been entangled with issues about land, along with those of culturalheritage and people’s relationship with their country, for as long as she couldremember. So her story in the 1980s gives some answers to that question.

From the tabling of the Select Committee Report in 1981, it had beenclear that there would be land rights legislation in New South Wales. Thequestion was what sort of process would bring justice to people whose countryhad been invaded over the longest period of time and whose cultural expres-sions had undergone the greatest changes under colonialism. The landcampaigners in 1977, including Isabel, had set up the New South WalesAboriginal Land Council, a non-government body not to be confused withthe later official body which took its name.

This original Land Council aimed to carry the struggle for land fromrhetoric to reality. This body made a major input into the hearings of the


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 186

Page 205: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Select Committee, during 1978 and 1979, as it took evidence from Aborigi-nal people both in Sydney and in rural centres. The Land Council memberstravelled far more widely than the Select Committee did to ensure thatAboriginal communities in the most remote areas were well informed aboutthe issues being discussed and that they had a chance to organise their ownthoughts and priorities before speaking with the Committee. Isabel laughedabout the travelling: ‘Yeah, I’m a funny sort of a person. I spent my life on theroad really, eh, when you look at it. Ted describes me as an ‘‘Old ManKangaroo’’—he just looks around and away he goes. But we had a lot ofmeetings all over the place that time’.

Isabel delighted in telling young people in later years the true stories ofhow the Land Council members got around by hitching rides, sleeping onfloors, borrowing money to pay for petrol or a train ticket, playing cards whilethey talked strategies and camping out wherever possible so they could enjoyyarning long into the night with old and new friends. There were no travelallowances, no sitting fees and no expense accounts. These organising tripsdepended partially on the resources of Aboriginal-controlled organisationslike Tranby, WALS and ALS. But they depended just as much on the gener-osity of community members who offered meals and floors and on the frugalityand tireless enthusiasm of the Land Council members. Isabel, along with oldfriends like Jacko Campbell, Julie Whitton and Tombo Winters, would lookback in later years on that period and wonder at how much they had accom-plished on a shoestring, but also on the great enjoyment they had gained fromeach others’ company and the excitement as well as the exhaustion of the job.Isabel recalled those meetings:

Isabel: I remember Jacko saying he was going to put a sign up on theJerrinja Lands saying: ‘This is Jerrinja Land . . .’ and you could havethought he was going to say ‘Keep out’. But what he wanted to say was:‘We hope you enjoy yourselves’. He just wanted acknowledgement for hisfamily. And I think that’s what all of us wanted really. It’s just the basicrights, you know.

And see, when Jacko used to come down and meet up with the restof us, he might be worried about something happening out there, say hewas having some problems with another one of the old fellas . . . well,we’d still have to work with them, but we’d have to rethink how we’d beworking. So developing strategies about how to cope with our com-munity members too was no easy task.

There was a lot of goodwill there among us, you never heard peopleswearing and going on. And we’d sit for days and talk about issues andwe used to give each other a hard time and all that. But on the final day

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 187

Page 206: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

it was the crunch time, you know, we just sat down and said: ‘Okay.Who’s doing this? Who’s doing that?’ And that’s where we developedthat idea that nothing happens unless it comes through a meeting, andwe were pretty strict on that because it was working so well.

The communication was really good so that you could get a messageto the members from the city to all the country areas. Within a couple ofdays you’d have everybody notified of a meeting or of a decision that hadbeen made. So it was really good in that way.

And it was good, too, because we were all organised at the one time,and all aware of what was going on. And you know, if you didn’t agreewith something, well, you still had time to let people know that. WhenI look at it, it’s amazing you know, the communication that we had rightthrough—right down to Dareton and everywhere.

As a result of all this talking, the Land Council influenced the Committee’srecommendations on some important principles. The basic premise was thatAborigines deserved and needed a land base for economic, social and culturalreasons. The Report then set about suggesting a mechanism to achieve thisend. It recommended a system by which Aborigines could claim land whichhad not been alienated by freehold or leasehold. The bases for their claimscould be an economic or social need, an historical association or a traditionalaffiliation. This approach recognised the massive damage as well as changewhich had occurred as indigenous cultures developed over the two centuriesof colonisation. It did not demand that people prove that they still had animprobably ‘traditional’ lifestyle or relationship as the only way to demon-strate an affiliation to land. As most land had already been alienated inNew South Wales, however, claims were never going to transfer a significantamount of land, so the Select Committee recommended establishing a sub-stantial fund to purchase land.

The structures to allow Aboriginal people to organise to make claims andpurchases and then to manage their land were to be a series of land councils,an idea derived from the Northern Territory but with distinctly local aspects.There were to be three ‘tiers’, the first and most important being the LocalLand Council, which would hold what was to be the communal, inalienabletitle to each piece of land successfully claimed or purchased. Every Aborigi-nal person in the state was eligible to be a member of at least one Local LandCouncil. These remain the most inclusive and democratic of any body oper-ating in Aboriginal communities. The Local Land Councils would meetregularly in Regional Land Councils, which would allow regional planning,economies of scale in purchase and management of land, and sharing ofinformation.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 188

Page 207: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The Regional Council boundaries reflected the pre-existing, long estab-lished and very practical networks of kinship, support and communicationwhich in rural areas arose as much from traditional language and culturalaffinities as from geography and recent economy. The region was the wayIsabel had experienced the on-the-ground organising networks whichsupported the cotton strike in 1973, for example, and the campaign to get thecemetery road upgraded in 1983. The Regional Councils would elect adelegate to attend a State Land Council, to which Regional decisions wouldbe reported. Power was to rest with Regionals and Locals, rather than thedistant State Land Council, to avoid the alienation which local Aboriginalcommunities had felt towards government initiated, Sydney-based andcentralised bodies in the past.

The Select Committee report was generally favourably received byAboriginal communities. After a discussion period, the State governmentintroduced a Land Rights Bill which incorporated most of the popular recom-mendations, and so received fairly strong Aboriginal support. But there weresome very big stumbling blocks along the way to having the bill enacted.A backlash had been building among rural white residents, fuelled by themisleading mining industry campaigns against the Northern Territory Land

Land Rights on the Ground


Barbara Flick and Kevin Cook ata demonstration demanding LandRights, c. 1981. The sign behindthem is in Paakantji, from theWilcannia people, and it reads‘We are in OUR OWN country’.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 189

Page 208: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Rights Act, and fanned by scare-mongering from New South Wales farmingindustry groups, like the Farmers’ Federation, which pretended that whitepeople would ‘lose their back yards’ if land rights became law. Not only did theconservative opposition parties in New South Wales oppose the bill, but theright wing members within the Labor Government also opposed it, especiallythose with links to white rural pressure groups.

Like most legislation, the 1983 Land Rights Act eventually ended up asa patchwork of compromises and concessions. Several government membersmoved last minute amendments which severely hampered the Act’s imple-mentation. The most damaging of these clauses, pushed through by the LaborMinister for Lands, blocked any claims over vacant Crown land if it could beshown to be needed for any undefined ‘future essential public purpose’. Theproof of such a need could not be tested by any judicial review. This and otheramendments were to have a destructive effect on the new Act’s effectiveness,allowing local governments to block legitimate claims on flimsy grounds.Just as seriously, the amendments undermined Aboriginal confidence in theAct itself.

The other major stumbling block was the decision by the Wran Govern-ment to use the opportunity of the Act’s passing to insist on a linked Billbeing accepted, which would retrospectively validate all previous revocationsof Aboriginal reserve land in the twentieth century. Over 20 000 acres ofAboriginal reserves, many of them independently-run Aboriginal farms orplaces of deep traditional significance, had been revoked since 1913, includ-ing that at Collarenebri in 1924. Aboriginal protests had been intense,particularly in the 1920s, but the lands were still revoked to make way forsoldier settlers, none of them Aboriginal, or for closer settlement.

Only in the mid 1970s did it become clear that these revocations, and thesubsequent sale of these lands as freehold, had all been done on a faulty legalbasis because of confusion over which department ‘owned’ the land. So all thesubsequent titles over these ‘freehold’ lands were invalid. Instead of reaching anegotiated compromise, in which Aboriginal people received some compensa-tion, Premier Wran insisted that if Aborigines wanted a Lands Rights Act atall, they were going to have to accept this retrospective validation of the illegalappropriation of a very large amount of their land. This left many Aborigineswith a sour taste about the Government’s sincerity on the whole issue.

Once passed, however, the Act needed Aboriginal involvement in theprocess of creating the land council structure, defining the boundaries ofthe various land councils and clarifying exactly how they were going to work.After thinking it over, Isabel’s niece Barbara and some of Isabel’s closestfriends, like Kevin Cook, decided that the Act, despite its failings andcompromises, was the best they were likely to get and so they should work

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 190

Page 209: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

with it. They sat on the Interim Land Council on which they spent monthsvisiting communities to discuss the possible Local Land Council boundariesand suggesting strategies to make this new structure actually work. Oneimportant step was to ensure that Regional Land Councils could supportLocals to consolidate their annual allocations of funds to make more substan-tial purchases of land.

Isabel was an active adviser during this process, endorsing Barbara’s andKevin’s position on the Interim Land Council and encouraging Collarenebripeople to get to know the Land Rights Act and see how it might work outbest for them. The Government intention was that once the Land Councilswere set up, each Local Land Council was to begin to receive its annual shareof the land fund and could then make its decisions about how to spend themoney. What became clear to everyone very quickly was that the moneygoing to each of the 113 Local Land Councils annually was both too smalland too large. Each disbursement to a Local was too little to buy much morethan a house block, even in Colle, and not even that in the larger towns,because of high New South Wales land prices.

The only way substantial amounts of land could be bought was if theRegionals were able to function effectively to pool Local Land Council

Land Rights on the Ground


Tony Flick at a Land Rights rally,c. 1982.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 191

Page 210: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

payments and to purchase properties on a rotating basis on behalf of Locals.So only one or two Locals might gain a piece of land in any one year, but even-tually they would all have one, and the process could start all over again. Thisasked a great deal of impoverished communities: they had to control theirdesires to call for land in their own area first, trusting their representatives onthe regional organisation to ensure that it dealt fairly so that eventually eachLocal Land Council would gain a piece of land.

This worked well in the far western region, where funds were pooled andlarge properties were purchased in sequence so that eventually each Localhad a substantial property for which they held title and which theycontrolled. A more divided Regional Land Council in the northwest sharedthis goal, but was not able to start to put it into effect for some years. Then achange of government in 1988 severely undermined the land acquisitionprocess, disbanding the Regional Land Councils and transferring their role toa centralised State Land Council. The upshot was that the three or four largeproperties finally purchased in the north-western region never passed intoLocal Land Council or local community control.

But if the annual allocation to each Local was too small to purchasemuch land, this amount of money was still large compared to most of thelocal organisation budgets, and it would certainly accumulate to a muchlarger resource over time. This scale meant that the demands for reportingfinancial management were complex and at first confused. In most ruraltownships, and certainly in Collarenebri, the middle-aged people managingthese new funds had, like Isabel, been excluded from formal education andlater training. Only a few had had Isabel’s tenacious determination to educatethemselves in the skills of literacy and numeracy which were essential tofulfilling the paperwork needed for acquitting the land rights grants. So forthe older, established community leaders, the new responsibilities wereintimidating and burdensome. In the worst cases, confusion about theprocesses gave dishonest individuals the opportunities to move in andpractise outright fraud. More often, the complicated paperwork invitedslipshod ways and shortcuts as poorly equipped communities tried to take onLocal Land Council administration.

Another rapidly emerging problem was that the goals of the Locals wereambiguous. Long time activists like Isabel expected that the funds would beused only on the purchases of land and that the land councils themselveswould be involved only in the claim and acquisition of land and then in itscultural development. But for many people, land and housing were part of thesame thing, and from the very beginning the Local Land Councils were calledon by community members to take up a role acquiring houses and managingthem. The Land Councils were a new idea and, for sceptical community

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 192

Page 211: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

members, they needed to show results, to have tangible, immediate outcomes,not just abstract or long delayed benefits.

Housing fitted this desire for short-term and tangible outcomes and thisincreased the community pressure for the Locals to become housing managers.Moreover, the Land Rights Act authorised immediate transfer of all existingReserves to the relevant Local Land Councils, which meant that the localsinherited the housing stock already in existence on these reserves, and weredrawn into a role in its management, even where a local housing company wasalready acting as manager. Government agencies, too, saw the land councilnetwork as a convenient structure onto which to offload many difficult andlong-term administrative problems, and housing was one of them.

Isabel was on the pension after her retirement from Mangankali and herhealth was fragile. A severe case of pneumonia and another bout of depres-sion brought her to Sydney, where she was nursed back to health by CathyBannister and Brian Doolan, close friends who were involved with Tranby.Once Isabel returned to Collarenebri she took an active role in the LocalLand Council, encouraging younger people to take on the formal positionsand contributing to the council’s discussions on its goals and strategies.

The first expectation everyone held was that the Land Rights Act wouldallow Murris to claim some of their land back, but in the Western Divisionaround Collarenebri there was little land which was not alienated as pastorallease. The few remaining pieces of Crown land were rapidly under claim, likethe town common at Engonnia to the northwest of Collarenebri, but localgovernment and the State Minister of Lands acted to obstruct them. It seemedclear to everyone in the region that land claims were not going to deliver much.

Isabel didn’t give up so easily, particularly when it came to the Abori-ginal cemetery, which held intense cultural significance for CollarenebriMurris, with its deep connections to their present and their past. As Isabelhad said at the road dedication in 1983, this land represented the whole widerexpanse of Gamilaraay lands and it was a testament to the sustained relation-ship between the Collarenebri Murris and their land. Isabel reflected on thebitter-sweet implications of the cemetery in later years:

Isabel: I remember the older women when I was a kid, worrying about ‘no-one’s going to look after it’ and maybe that was implanted in my mind,but I realised how important that was as years went on. It makes me realisewhat we really did lose. Because it proves that that particular area was setaside by the king at the time, there was 100 acres there, revoked in 1924—just a little piece of land in all those big leases, it makes you feel deprived.And yet you’re still aware of the fact that it’s part of that land that’s beenput under lease, that our history is a part of that wider leased land.

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 193

Page 212: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Since the 1924 revocation of the Crown land reserve, the currentcemetery, the very old cemetery behind it and the lagoon from which peoplehad brought water to burn bottles, had all been part of a western lands pastorallease held by the Copeman family. While she had still been at Mangankali andtrying to scrape up funds for the cemetery road upgrade, Isabel had beentalking to the lessee, Clara Copeman. This was another example of Isabel’sability to reach out across the deep gap between black and white Collarenebriresidents to develop real communication about crucial issues.

Isabel had achieved a first step towards bringing the cemetery back intoAboriginal ownership when, in 1982, acting with the NSW Lands Trust, shereached an agreement with Mrs Copeman which protected the cemeterylands and guaranteed Aboriginal people’s access to them. The Land RightsAct in the following year seemed to offer a way to achieve greater securityover the cemetery by bringing the actual title of the land, communal andinalienable, back into Aboriginal hands. But a land claim was impossiblebecause of the existing western lands lease. So Isabel, this time on behalf ofthe Local Land Council, went back to Mrs Copeman and began talkingagain. Doreen Hynch remembers that Isabel would meet Clara in thesandwich shop in town, chatting over how they could take the arrangementjust a little bit further.

The upshot was extraordinary. Between them, Isabel Flick and ClaraCopeman organised a complicated sequence of steps. First, Mrs Copemanwould voluntarily relinquish the western lands lease around those sectionswhich were of great significance to Murris, as agreed on in 1982. Once thiswas finally accepted by government and gazetted in 1988, Isabel immediatelyinitiated the steps for the Land Council to lodge a claim, in January 1989,over what was now vacant Crown land. With assistance from Colin Claguein the NSW Lands Department, the claim was formally accepted in 1990.And at long last, after the slow process of claims investigation had draggedagonisingly along, the land claim was finally granted and communal freeholdtitle to the land passed to the Aboriginal community in 1996. The processhad been so slow and bureaucratic that many Murris in Collarenebri losttrack of it, but Isabel was dogged in her pursuit of the goal and simply refusedto let it slip. She and Clara Copeman demonstrated that communication andpatience could achieve outcomes of deep significance to all sides, an earlyand very real example of lived reconciliation.

There appeared to be no other areas of land able to be claimed, nor otheropportunities for the productive negotiating strategies which Isabelconducted so well. And other land holders were much less sympathetic andco-operative. Tension had mounted over land rights after a long period of lossof Aboriginal jobs, leaving few Aboriginal people with access to properties as

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 194

Page 213: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

workers anymore. So it was easy for anxious and misled graziers simply to lockthe gates, as did the lessees of the land on which the Old Camp lay, betweenthe cemetery and Isabel’s Block on the edge of town. The denial of access tothe Old Camp site was one issue which still made Isabel tremble with angerwhen she spoke about it years later in 1999. The locks meant that Murris hadto ask permission to get onto what had been their home for so many years andthe anticipation of humiliating knockbacks kept most people from asking.‘Because when they put the locks on the gate, you didn’t know whether youwere going to get in or not, and so we didn’t want to argue the point aboutthings like that.’ So in the mid-1980s, far from gaining more access to landfor cultural and social purposes, Isabel and her community seemed to belosing the little access they had had in the past.

As the North-Western Regional Land Council was so slow in its collec-tive land purchase program, the pressures on the Locals in the area to turn tohousing management increased. There were many families living in the townwho needed housing, not just those on the Wollai, and the Land Councilmembers increasingly saw the purchase of housing blocks and the building ofhouses as the LALC’s legitimate function. Isabel’s voice on the Local Councilwas consistently to seek sensible ways to do this, if it was the direction theLand Council wanted to go in. Although it didn’t always win her friends,Isabel maintained that a housing priority list was essential, because it wouldallow housing to be planned and allocated fairly to those in most need—either because of family size or poverty—and to those who had been acceptedonto the queue first. Only this type of process, she argued, would allowhousing to be allocated in such a way as to strengthen community relations,rather than destructively set family against family in attempts to shortcut thequeue.

But Isabel also stressed the Land Council’s need to support the othertown organisations, like Mangankali, in gaining better infrastructure for thewhole Aboriginal—and indeed, for the whole town—population. The watersupply, particularly, was a glaring problem. Despite the housing programnearing completion on the Wollai by the late 1980s, the water supply was stillinadequate and, like the town’s water supply, it was drawn directly from theBarwon River. Isabel argued that urgent infrastructure needed to be installedto upgrade the whole water supply for everyone.

But there were wider dimensions to land rights than water supplies or evengaining tenure over land. Isabel felt herself strongly connected to the wholeregion now. Her relationship to the north-western Gamilaraay/Yuwalaraay areafrom Boggabilla and Moree across to Walgett, was built on family and friends,as were her links up into Queensland through Mungindi, Thallon and StGeorge. But she had also built up a network of relationships through the Legal

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 195

Page 214: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Service network and then her friendships with the WALS activists in Brewar-rina, Bourke, Wilcannnia, Broken Hill and beyond. The land rights campaignshad cemented those comradeships, and when the opportunities came, Isabelwas eager to get to meetings where she could catch up with those old friends.

One important meeting like this was the blockade of ‘Mootwingee’National Park in 1983 by the communities of Wilcannia, Broken Hilland Menindee. These were people with a strong affiliation to Mutawintji,a wonderful and mysterious site of rich art galleries and powerful stories, hiddenin the navel of the hills. This site had been taken over by a grazing lease, itsname anglicised to Mootwingee, and then purchased by National Parks in thelate 1960s and exhibited as a natural and historic site, with little consultationwith Aboriginal people about its continuing cultural meanings. But Aboriginalpeople in the surrounding area knew the site well and continued to visit it andteach their children about it. They were angry and offended over many yearsby The National Parks and Wildlife Service allowing unrestrained visitoraccess to areas which Aboriginal people knew to be only for initiated men.

Finally they had had enough of not being consulted. So tourist buses fromBroken Hill were met with the bright signs in red, black and gold on the longweekend in October 1983: ‘Mutawintji: Closed by the Owners’.

I was with Isabel that weekend, driving her down with a group of Tranbystudents. As we drove in, we could feel the intense excitement and see theenergy in the noisy crowd. The blockade camp was two hundred strong, withelders like Alice Bugmy, Jim James Bates, Tibby Brier, Dorrie Hunter andMay Barlow, along with the younger leaders like William Bates, MaureenO’Donnell and Badger Bates. All around were kids, eager to muck around asthey set up the campsite or to help hunt bush tucker. A group of Aboriginalpeople were always at the gates, stopping tourist buses and patiently explain-ing to the tourists the importance of the site, before courteously asking thebus driver to turn the bus around and head back to Broken Hill. The RegionalLand Council had invited friends from across the region, and Tombo Winterswas there, along with Barbara Flick with the WALS mob.

When Isabel arrived around midday Saturday there was already bushtucker in abundance, with emus being cooked in the holes as we drove intothe camp, kangaroos being griddled on the fire and the dough for johnnycakes being mixed and thrown high in the air, stretching it out to its properround flat shape. This bush camp was a new way of doing politics in NewSouth Wales, exciting and very, very different from the formal meetings inhalls with motions and ‘Chairs’, which so many local organisations likehousing companies had come to feel was expected of them all the time.

This blockade involved direct action with powerful symbolic effect, justlike the Tulladunna occupation in 1981. But as a bush meeting, it drew on the

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 196

Page 215: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

confidence of the far western communities to hunt and occupy their land, tolive on it and from it with an assurance which had become harder for theMurris from further east, where pastoral leasees had locked their gates so muchearlier, and where women, in particular, had been separated from real contactwith their country except on the riverbanks close to camps and towns.

A big element at Mutawintji was teaching and learning: teaching aboutthe beautiful stencil galleries in the hills, teaching about the areas where onlymen could go, learning strategies for getting their message across as theytalked to tourists at the gates or screenprinted t-shirts back at the main camp.Isabel revelled in this blockade and talked about it for years afterwards, seeingit as the model for the way she wanted land rights and community life to bedeveloped:

Isabel: The good thing about the blockade at Mutawintji was we had theolder people more or less guiding us and the younger ones were learning,and it was a good time. We were all together, camping. There was nofive-star accommodation, but plenty of unity, we had real unity. In oneend of where we camped, we set that aside for people if they wanted tohave a drink or a singsong. After a meeting, well the young ones wentdown there, but it was a very well disciplined blockade. Because I thinkeveryone recognised the importance of being able to talk to all thepeople who came in buses from everywhere and to get their reaction tobeing turned back. It was really good and everyone supported each other.It was the men’s job to provide the bush tucker and to teach the youngerones how to do that; so there was a lot of men and boys’ stuff going onthere, and women and girls’ stuff. And us older ones, while we werehaving a game of cards we were still planning what we could do to bringabout the changes.

The Mutawintji Blockade had a powerful effect on Isabel, intensifying herdesire to restore the symbols of cultural links between her community and theland. The reality of land rights was much more to her than the small patchesof land which would be the most any claim and purchase process couldacquire. As she had said about the cemetery, its boundaries spoke not onlyof the people buried within it, but of the limitless expanse of Murri land ofwhich it was the remaining visible symbol. For Isabel, land rights meant anew set of relationships between a whole people and their land, no matterwho held the particular title deeds. Isabel wanted a real reoccupation of hercountry.

At times, that was easier to see from outside of town. The perspectives ofthe region and her comradeship with the women of the far west as well as the

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 197

Page 216: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

northwest gave Isabel the refreshing sense of expansiveness which madesmall-town life, with its petty tensions and jealousies, much more manage-able. So Isabel was eager to support the Western Women’s Council whenBarbara Flick and Maureen O’Donnell from WALS proposed it at a meetingin 1984. The resources of the community organisations seemed too often tobe absorbed in meetings at which men dominated the numbers and the style.There wasn’t often a place in the car for women with kids or for older womento travel to these meetings, which cut them off from the important socialnetworks as well as the political decision making.

The Western Women’s Council, based on the Land Council model,would grab some of those resources and focus them just on women, givingthem a chance to spend some time with each other, and exchange experiencesand ideas. A key goal was to bring women together outside of towns, to havetheir own bush meetings so they could get back in touch with country and toget to know each other outside the white town context. As pastoral jobs forwomen had been cut back, many had become confined to the townships andso their knowledge of and confidence in being in the bush was ebbing away.The promises of land rights meant little for these women if they weren’t ableto get back into the bush and feel competent and at home enough to make ittheir own again. The new bush meeting style, and particularly the Mutawin-tji Blockade, had been so exciting and satisfying that everyone was eager torepeat the experience but to concentrate its impact on women.

The main bush meeting of the Women’s Council which Isabel was ableto attend was over Easter in 1985 at Winbar, the large back block of what hadbeen a massive river-frontage pastoral property on the Darling River betweenWilcannia and Louth. Winbar was the subject of an intensely fought landclaim. This was one of the few claimable places with a pastoral history, whichmeant that Aboriginal people had been able to live on traditional country atthe same time as they worked in the new economy. The Western Lands Leaseover it had lapsed when the property was broken up in the mid-1970s and theriver-front blocks sold, leaving this section idle as vacant Crown land andmaking it immediately claimable.1 Isabel’s friend, John Terry, acting for theWestern Regional Land Council, was conducting a tenacious pursuit of thisland against vigorous opposition from the State Government. The Women’sCouncil decided to hold their bush camp there to emphasise the wide andsustained Aboriginal demand for the rights to this country.2

But this was a tough camp. Winbar is far more isolated than Mutawintjior the site of the first camp the Women’s Council had held at Mt Grenfell atthe end of 1984. The black soil Winbar roads were boggy with intermittentrain limiting the amount of food collection the women could do, as well asfrustrating the kids who were there. But for Isabel, and for Barbara Flick too,

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 198

Page 217: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

this camp left warm memories of the deepening relationships among thewomen of the region. In her later recollections, Isabel pointed out that mucheffort went into getting to this camp at Winbar. She explained how compar-ing the differences between experiences in the two regions was important forher in understanding how much her community had lost, as well as howmuch the common experiences of women under mission life and ‘appren-ticeship’ had shaped their lives:

Isabel: When we set up the Women’s Council, we knew that one of theimportant things was to get back into the community, not just meetingsin Sydney. The message got around better that way and more peoplegot involved in community things. From Menindee to Bourke, andEngonnia, and to Toomelah and Walgett, it was good for us to gettogether and talk about land and what we could do.

And there was no money . . . no TA, we just linked up with eachother by going down to the phone box and seeing who’s going throughour way. Sometimes we had to wait for pension days or social days toeven start travelling. It might take us two or three days to even get to theplaces we were meeting. Now Winbar was pretty far out and I canremember we did a lot of hitchhiking to get there . . . I think Julie[Whitton] and I met up with someone going down that way. It was moreor less who was going our way . . . and we just ended up out there!

See it was harder for women to get money for travel. Then it startedto get really impossible, because we needed to do a lot more working inthe community once the Land Councils were up and we’d have localmeetings organised. So you couldn’t just break off a meeting in town andgo to Wilcannia because there was a meeting for women on.

We found a lot in common, even though I think we’ve lost more ofthe language than the people down Wilcannia way, where they were stillable to practise theirs, while we are trying to retrieve stuff. So that wassomething that we all felt they had an advantage in that. But we had lotsof common work experiences on stations and for some of us in ‘appren-ticeships’. And the thing was, even though some of the stories were sad,we were able to laugh at some of the things our people endured to sort ofbecome educated.

The bush foods were a really important part of the camp at Winbar.And the women did that, that was all women. It was a learning thing forme too, because even though as a kid I was taught how to fish and lookfor bait and stuff like that, but to see the younger ones bringing back akangaroo or an emu and actually cleaning it and stuffing it and cookingit, it was a real educational time for all of us.

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 199

Page 218: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Barbara has pointed out how important it was for the women who had been‘apprenticed’, and who were feeling that their experiences were irrelevant tomany younger people, to be able to find this common ground across theregion and to be recognised and celebrated for the strength they had shown.

Isabel’s memories of this camp stressed its valuable outcomes. But theaudio recordings made by the Women’s Council during their meetings at thisbush camp have a tense, sharp edge which reflected the difficulties thesewomen were facing in their community lives and in regaining confidence ontheir country. Isabel was outspoken as the motions were discussed, stressingthe importance of supporting children in crisis and protecting women andchildren from the violence caused by alcohol abuse from within the Aborigi-nal community and by police attacks and educational indifference fromoutside. But another issue for all of them was that the poor weather and badroads had demonstrated how fragile their hold on their independence was inthis remote and poorly serviced area. Particularly for women responsible forelderly people and young children, their need for access to medical facilitiesfrustratingly underscored the degree to which they could no longer be whollyindependent on their land. This was demonstrated when a car which wentout to shoot emu had become bogged for hours, and those left in campworried about how they would find them and then how they would cope ifsomeone had been injured.

Even more difficult was a challenge by some of the younger women to thegeneral agreement that there should be no alcohol at the camp. These youngwomen disappeared from camp early Sunday morning without telling anyone,then eventually turned up hours later, bringing grog back into the camp. Bythe time they returned, their families were relieved that they were safe butfurious that they had flouted the desires of the majority of the women in thecamp, showing no respect for themselves and their elders. One mother seizedher daughter’s carton of beer and hurled it, unopened into the scrub. Andthere it stayed. Her sister is said to have found it years later, label faded but stillunopened, a silent monument to a mother’s fierce determination to stop grogfrom destroying a time that was deeply important to her and her family.

And finally there was the frustration which many women were feelingabout their marginalisation by men in the decision making in their owncommunities, in organisations like the Land Councils and the legal services.Isabel summed up many of these strands of tension, about women, communi-ties and land, when she said to the women at the close of the meeting:

Isabel: I think we learnt a lot from this trip here . . . It frightens youto think how dangerous the country is. And the responsibility is there,and it’s not only for Maureen and Barbara, but for all of us. We have a

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 200

Page 219: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

responsibility for each other and that’d be the same if it was in a town,even if we had the meeting right in the town hall, we still have the respon-sibility to each other because we’ve travelled a long way. Collarenebriand Menindee is not just a stone’s throw apart . . .

But I wouldn’t like to see us get disheartened by this. Here was Isaying yesterday after that car got bogged, ‘This is the last meeting forme’. What sort of women are we to say that? We’d be gutless, eh!

Men have been laughing about this women’s council, you know . . .But you’ve got the best land council structure of anywhere. Every otherland council are all governed by men, or women who are only thereto line their own pockets . . . Those men laughed about this women’scouncil and made snide remarks . . . but if we stay solid, even though weare a small number, we can change those land councils.

Although she had formally retired, Isabel’s relationships across the regionkept her busy over the next year or so, travelling to meetings at the same timeas she continued to actively involve herself in Collarenebri affairs. Hercontributions to Collarenebri and to the wider Aboriginal community wererecognised in April 1986 with a Medal of the Order of Australia, an honourof which she was quietly proud. It allowed her a sense of justification after allthese years of battling with the local authorities to have her work, so oftenlabelled ‘making trouble’, finally acknowledged as a valued contribution tothe community. And it also gave her a new lever to add to her arsenal whenshe was trying to exert pressure on some official. She could now sign her mostchallenging letters to authorities with ‘Isabel Flick, OAM’. Yet she nevertook it too seriously. Whenever anyone asked her what OAM stood for, shewould laugh as she answered: ‘Oh, that stands for Old Aboriginal Moll!’

Despite being busy, Isabel had more time for her grandchildren in thoseyears, many of whom were living in Collarenebri or close by. She had beensaddened for a long time by her estrangement from Ben’s wife, but she keptin touch with Ben and his children in Bathurst whenever she could. Sheenjoyed all her grandchildren, but the housing shortages in the town inCollarenebri had begun to have a severe impact on her own family. Becauseof Isabel’s refusal to allow her children to apply for houses from the Aborigi-nal organisations, some of them waited longer for housing than they mightotherwise have done. Tony and Peggy with their six children had finally gota comfortable Housing Department house not too far from the Block and abit later on in 1988 their son Mark was born. But Larry’s family and Brenda’sfamily, as well as Amy and young Aub, were all living with Isabel and Ted atthe Block itself, making the small two bedroom house unbearably crowded.Amy had been on the Department of Housing accommodation list for a long

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 201

Page 220: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

time and so when she was finally allocated a house she took it even thoughit was in Moree. Then Brenda and her family moved to a double-decker buswhich they parked on the Block behind Isabel’s house, relieving the pressurebut falling outside any regulations about habitable dwellings.

The house itself continued to reflect the economic difficulties Murris facedin the region, and Isabel had not ever had enough spare cash to upgrade theservices to it. Like many older houses in Collarenebri it had never had electrichot water. Instead, water was heated in a drum over a partially open fire. Laterin 1986, fire once again claimed a terrible price from the family. Brenda hadtravelled to Sydney to accompany Isabel to a doctor’s appointment. Amy wason the Block minding the kids and was occupied with Brenda’s baby, Isabella.Brenda’s two elder daughters, Bernadette aged nine and her younger sister,Chantelle, happened to be near the water heater when some young boys on thefar side of the fire, unaware of the girls’ presence, threw an aerosol can into theflames in imitation of a recent TV show. The explosion was directed entirelytowards the two girls, and Bernadette particularly was terribly burnt. Amy hadthe presence of mind to stand both of the girls in the cold water shower, but shecould do little to relieve their pain. The girls went through months of agonyand lonely hospitalisation, and then for many years after had to wear pressurebandages and masks to reduce their scarring.

This terrible accident, with its echoes of Barbara’s burns on the Block, wasto draw much of Isabel’s energy over the next years as she tried to support hergranddaughters and their mother. But then in November 1989 another tragedyhit them all. A flapping curtain ignited on a fan, and Tony’s house went up inflames. Isabel tried to explain later how their loss had changed her life:

Isabel: When people get unhappy, I think what a waste of time. Andthat’s why I can’t grieve anymore. At first I could. I could stop and letmyself grieve, like when Dad died, and Mum . . . I used to do that. Butthen when I lost the little grandson in that fire, I don’t think I ever gotaway from that scene, you know, and that day. We were having this bigmeeting in the hall about the Aboriginal Legal Service, and we werereally into it and people were having shots at me because I was being veryadamant about moving away from the city office. And then all of asudden we heard the fire engine. And then someone said: ‘Oh it’s upfrom your way’.

And then when I looked and I saw the fire engines going that way,and then I thought: ‘Oh gee, what could’ve happened at home?’ So I wasjust going to get in the car and Amy comes past and she said: ‘Well, quickMum we have to go up to Tony’s place’. So, standing there and watchingeveryone trying to put the fire out and everything. And then I’m looking

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 202

Page 221: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

around and counting all the kids and I’m thinking about everybody andI said: ‘As long as all my kids are out’. But the baby . . . Then when theytold me, of course, I just couldn’t handle it. I could see all my grandkidsexpecting me to fix it. Because I think they had this idea that I could fixanything.

That was the hardest part for me to deal with—my grandkidsgrieving. I realised then I had to not worry about how I feel. I’ve got toworry about how they feel. And that took . . . oh, many many months ofjust making sure that I was there whenever they wanted to come thereand cry. And I think then all those deaths . . . the loss of my young sisterand our little granddaughter, and then the first young grandson, and then. . . I think all those deaths came back on me then. And I realised fromthere on that I couldn’t grieve the way I used to, I had to change my waysof dealing with death because these kids were expecting so much from meand I knew I had to be alert all the time to give them whatever comfort Icould. And I think it was from there on that I realised that I can’t stopnow and grieve. That’s how I’ve got to be doing something all the time.

The accident shattered many lives. Its burden separated Tony and Peggy notlong after, and Tony moved away from Collarenebri, leaving a painful gap forIsabel and the rest of the family.

Isabel’s own grieving took the form of furious activity. She decided shewould go back to work, taking up the job as co-ordinator of the Local LandCouncil, even though by now she was troubled like everyone was by thefeuding which had grown up about housing priorities and the tensions arisingfrom the slowness of the region to deliver land purchases.

There were a number of frustrating problems which she inherited withthis job. One was the intractable issue of the rents on the Wollai, whichunderneath was an example of a thorny problem in any small community,where people are reluctant to take action against relations. The land hadcome under the control of the Land Council in 1983 as it had been Reserveland, which meant the Local Land Council was responsible for collecting therents which were needed to pay for maintenance of the housing stock whichMangankali had built. One Wollai resident had taken on himself the roleof rent collector, but had allegedly never passed the rents onto eitherMangankali or the Land Council nor, seemingly, was any maintenancecarried out. Too many of the Wollai and town community were related to thisman to challenge the situation, but the problem only became worse as regularmaintenance on the houses could not be undertaken for lack of rent money.

A wider problem was the bitter opposition of the conservative StateGovernment, elected in 1988 and, particularly from the National Party side of

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 203

Page 222: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

the coalition, deeply opposed to the previous Labor Government’s Land Rightslaws. The incoming Premier had tried to seize the whole Land Council’s landpurchase funds outright, but this was such a flagrant breach of common law thatthe government was forced to retreat. Instead, it pushed through amendmentsto the Land Rights Act which severely disabled it. One major legal change withlong term consequences and with intense symbolic significance was the aboli-tion of inalienable title, making communal inalienable Aboriginal land simplysaleable freehold and therefore much more vulnerable.

Another major change removed all effective power from the RegionalLand Councils and handed real decision making over to the State LandCouncil, which was thereafter to have directly elected and paid members.Dismantling the Regionals meant that each Local Land Council would nowbe on its own: its buying power could not be enhanced by pooling with otherLocals within the region and so the regular payments from the land purchasefund, never enough to buy much on their own, would be more likely to gotowards an office, a house block, a salary or a vehicle. These might all be forlegitimate Land Council purposes, but they meant that there could never bea significant land acquisition program. And it was clear to everyone atcommunity level that the new State body would entrench a centraliseddecision-making body very similar to the old Lands Trust with Councillors,cut adrift from the communities which elected them, who would find it hardto stay in touch with individual community needs.

Isabel had been deeply committed to the ideas of the early Land RightsAct. The inalienability of communal title and the strength of the Regions werecentral principles to her, as they were to many Aboriginal community membersacross the state. There was a groundswell of opposition to the amendments andIsabel along with many others travelled to Sydney to register their dismay andanger at the way the government was heading. Liberal Premier Greiner tried toconfuse the issue by calling in Charlie Perkins—who had had little previousinvolvement in New South Wales politics—to ‘report’ on the proposed amend-ments. His consultation with communities was rushed and inadequate inIsabel’s view. She argued that Perkins was unashamedly supporting the estab-lishment of a centralised State Land Council. She saw this as a form oforganisation in which Perkins, with his long career as a Federal public servant,was now most comfortable and which would give a small group of Perkins’ alliesa chance of controlling, more readily than they could othewise have done, thenetwork of locally-grounded Regional Councils. With the Perkins’ reportcoming in, as predicted, in support of the Greiner proposals, the State LandCouncil members were the last obstacle to the amendments which promisedthem a five-year job, a car and a substantial salary. Although they couldn’t stopthe legislation being introduced to Parliament, they carried the symbolic and

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 204

Page 223: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

strategic burden of the decision to oppose or endorse the amendments. With anumber of independents opposed to the bill, the Labor opposition votes werecrucial in defending or undermining their own Land Rights law. But divisionshad always been deep within the Labor party on the Land Rights Act and theAboriginal Land Council members needed to demonstrate united opposition tothe amendments if the Labor opposition was to be swayed to vote against theamendments.

Many people from all over city and country New South Wales againcame to Sydney to reinforce their concerns when the State Land Council metfor the last time to consider their position on the amendments before thelegislation went to Parliament. Isabel was there with her son Aub, andher nephews Deakin [Lubby’s son] and Gavin [Lindsay’s and Rosie’s son], herbrother Joe and many others who were familiar faces from the land rightscampaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. Isabel’s niece, Karen, along with JudyChester, Kevin Cook’s partner, had been working at the State Land Counciland they too were deeply opposed to the amendments, so they were therealongside the Local Land Council members. They all rallied at the Liverpooloffices of the State Land Council to plead with Council members to considerthe community before they considered their own personal futures. When itwas clear that some of the State Land Council members were already nego-tiating with the Greiner ministry, the demonstrating Local membersoccupied the building, set up camp and refused to leave.

The sit-in lasted three days, with a series of confrontations within thebuilding between the Local Land Council members and the State LandCouncil members. But it had become clear by then that a number of Statecouncillors were wavering in their opposition to the Greiner changes. TheBill went into Parliament, but the Labor Party opposition was too divided tovote against the amendments. A sombre crowd of around 1000 Aboriginalcommunity members from all over the state stood silently in the streetsoutside the locked gates of Parliament, confronted by police and securityguards. The crowd was grimly standing watch as the Land Rights Act wastorn apart. Isabel stood with Joe, each silently frustrated by their inability tosave the structures they had fought so hard to create.

Then, off to the right, there was a brief disturbance and Karen, Deakin andAmy were over the side fence. The pressure from the supporting crowd pushedthe fence over after them, and the demonstrators flooded in to the forecourt.Karen and Deakin were by this time up on the verandah of the House, headingthrough the doors to make their case face to face with the Government. Joe wasclose behind, up the main steps to the door to follow Karen and Deakin intoParliament, but the police grabbed the grey-headed old man, turning him andforcing him back down the stairs, only to find themselves confronted by Gavin,

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 205

Page 224: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

protecting his uncle. In the confusion, Joe turned and headed up the stairsagain, his agility taking the police by surprise, but he was grabbed at the top andshuffled down again into the forecourt. Within minutes, Karen, Deakin, Amyand Gavin were each sitting in a van in custody, and Joe had been roughlyescorted down the stairs yet again. The crowd had burst into life, now shoutingtheir anger and frustration in the forecourt, at least able to make it clear thatthe State Land Council did not speak for them.

The Greiner amendments to the Land Rights Act became law, and theydrastically changed the conditions for Local Land Councils all over the state.Land acquisition virtually ceased. Figures were notoriously difficult to extractfrom the new State Land Council for years after these changes in 1991, but thefew figures which did leak out told the same story: no new land purchases andthe only claims granted were those lodged before the amendments. ForCollarenebri, the dismantling of the North Western Regional Land Councilmeant that there would never be the scope to purchase significantly sized prop-erties and have them under local control. The three or four grazing propertiesthe North Western Region had finally purchased, just as the amendmentsbecame law, stayed under the control of the State Land Council and theirownership and management have never passed into local hands. Pressurefrom the conservative state government and a hounding press encouraged a

Isabel Flick


Joe Flick is, amid a shower of water thrown by demonstrators, forced down the stairs of theNew South Wales Parliament after attempting to enter during a 1991 demonstration toprotest against the Greiner Government’s amendments to the 1983 Land Rights Act.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 206

Page 225: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

commercial approach to land management in the State Land Council, wherethe need to demonstrate a competence in profit-making overtook the hopes forcultural and social access to land which had been so important for manycommunities. Isabel discussed her frustration at this direction:

Isabel: They just haven’t got the right kind of management in place in lotsof places. See, I think out in the northwest the State Land Council havenow got a lot of land. That Kaluma Station is a big property. But it’s hardcountry. It mainly ran cattle and certain types of sheep. There wasn’tmuch else going. But there could be other things developing there. Andthat’s where we wanted to really develop initiative programs for kids, forsome of these kids going before the courts. And then there’s still room togo and work another side where you’re working with kids . . . not just theones before the courts.

We had a really good proposal we put up to the New South WalesMinisters Pickering and Virginia Chadwick, when we had a meeting withthem at Lightning Ridge. And because it was going to cost a little bit ofmoney they watered it down, right down to where they just gave them abus and a little shelter in Bourke, where they can just pick up kids who areon the streets, so they are more or less treating them just like drunks. So itdid away with the plans that we had for incentive programs—to set up ourown small courses . . . do up old motor cars, make them roadworthy andsort of give the kids incentives by giving them those cars to take responsi-bilities with them. And woodworking . . . we were going to set up our ownfurniture factory out there. Oh, I just forget how many different programswe had planned to set up there for the girls and boys through the RegionalLand Council level. But it was after that that the amendments took outthe Region. And then of course we lost all that direction then.

I hoped that if we could get these women’s organisations up andgoing we could just be putting up those proposals over and over till theyget up. With all this law and order stuff about, as soon as there’s a problemin a town they want more cops, so that’s what happens. But we wanted tosay: ‘Well, that’s not the way we want to go about it’. I think they’re doinggreat things out at Goodooga now with the kids, because they’ve got thatbig property at Mogilla and I think they’re starting to run programs forkids there. But that’s the Indigenous Land Corporation, the Federal one,not the State Land Council, and it’s not under our control.

In the wake of the Greiner amendments, the management of housing—itsconstruction, allocation and maintenance—became the major role of theLocal at Collarenebri. Reluctantly, Isabel was drawn into a relentless sequence

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 207

Page 226: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

of community conflicts about who should have priority on the housing list andhow rents should be extracted from reluctant tenants. In the meantime, shemanaged a major building program through the Land Council, in whichsubstantial brick houses began to be built in the township for Aboriginalfamilies. Not only were these houses important in improving the living con-ditions of Murris, they were the only new building occurring at all in the littletown. Isabel and her community were literally changing the face of Collaren-ebri, the town which had tried for so long to keep them segregated, confinedand out of sight.

Isabel still refused to accept applications from her own children for thelocal housing lists, and the Department of Housing did not have houses tooffer in Collarenebri. Larry had lived in Collarenebri all his life and neitherhe nor Brenda wanted to move away, but their position was becoming desper-ate. Walgett Shire Council made an inspection of the house on the Block,issuing a severe warning. The bus and tin room attached to it which werehousing Brenda’s family was completely unacceptable to Council, and thisstill left Larry’s family, with 11 people, sharing the house with Isabel and Ted.The council was adamant that although each of the dwellings and surroundswas clean and well kept, the property’s gross overcrowding demanded theimmediate rehousing of at least 14 of the 18 people on the Block.3 Isabel wasleft with no alternative but to agree that her children would apply for LandCouncil housing, entangling them all, as Isabel had predicted, in the dispir-iting local grumbling about housing allocation.

But Isabel sustained a determination to make the Land Council do morethan manage houses. Living on the Wollai, like living on most Aboriginalreserves in New South Wales, had always been made more difficult by therefusal of local authorities to ensure that road access was safe and that serviceslike water and electricity were available. Reserve communities all over thestate have horror stories of being isolated in floods because of dirt roads andof summer epidemics traced to poor water supplies. But the essentials whichcouncils insisted on for any residential housing development turned out notto be so essential when the residents were Aboriginal. These problems hadrankled Murris in Collarenebri for many years and Isabel was determined toget them solved. But as she had found so often, the attempts to achievesensible and modest outcomes met with delays and obstruction as localgovernment tried to manipulate the outcomes or just make a bit of moneyfrom the Federal funding which had begun to flow to address infrastructureproblems in remote areas.

It took ten years after the cemetery road was upgraded before Isabel couldget the Wollai road sealed. By this time, a new Federal administrativestructure, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), was

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 208

Page 227: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

in place, with elected Aboriginal commissioners and regional councils. Inwestern New South Wales, the Murdi-Paaki Regional ATSIC Councilcovered both the north-western and far western Land Council areas. Isabelwas elected to the first regional council, where her long experience meant shewas a respected voice. The endorsement of the ATSIC Regional Council forthe sealing of the road did not remove the local government obstacles,although it gave Isabel a bargaining tool. The actual implementation of theproject needed sustained negotiation and intervention at the local level, andIsabel took that on in meeting after meeting. She could now confidentlyorchestrate such meetings, like one in which she had to mediate betweenwhite shire officials and a white contractor. She had travelled a long roadsince her first shy attendance at town committee meetings in Collarenebriwith Harry Denyer in the 1960s. She reflected: ‘And so we had to have aconfrontation just to get that road done. But we won. I can look back and say:‘‘Yes, I’ve done a bit there’’ ’.

The other critical infrastructure problem took Isabel back to her earlycampaign for an ablution block on the Wollai, but it also expanded to haveimplications for the whole town. The water to the Wollai was still drawndirectly from the river, but so too was the town water supply. Isabel had beencampaigning on this for some time as an urgent matter, but there was verydirect resistance this time from white townspeople who were worried abouttheir water rates going up:

Isabel: When I took up the issue of the water supply in Colle and thesewage, we started to talk at a regional level at ATSIC about those issues.So then it was put up national for those areas to be addressed. And, ofcourse, in a town like Colle you’re not only talking about a Reserve,you’re talking about the town. The first thing they said was: ‘Oh Isabelyou know that can’t happen. Who’s going to pay rates? We’re going tohave higher rates . . .’ So, there was a bit of an outcry there.

And I said: ‘The issue is that Aboriginal people have a right to haveclean water. I pay $500 a year for my water. I’m a taxpayer too, in thatsense I pay my rates the same as anyone else. And I’m going to haveclean water. I’d rather have clean water than what we’ve got’. And theysaid: ‘Yes, and you know what’s going to happen? Our rates are going toup and . . .’ And I said: ‘Well that’s understandable, everybody is going tobe concerned about that. But the sewage that’s right next door to ourolder people that we’ve got down there, that’s not good. We shouldn’thave it. We’re entitled to have the proper kind of ponds’.

And one day one old fella came in the office and he started goingcrook on me. And he said: ‘Look, it’s all right for you blacks, you get

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 209

Page 228: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

every bloody thing paid for you’. And I said: ‘Let me tell you this, I payfor my own. Just a minute I’ll get my rates notice’. I threw it on the table,and then I threw the Land Council’s rates on the table. And I said: ‘Wepay our rates the same as you do. You shouldn’t go on like this’. And hesaid: ‘Oh nobody can tell me what to do . . .’ I said: ‘Okay’. And when Iwent into the shop next door everybody is saying: ‘Oh God, there’s goingto be a row now’. And I said: ‘No, I just showed him that we pay ratestoo. He thought we didn’t pay rates. But once he understood that, whatelse could he say’.

Then in the summer of 1991, the Darling River died. A massive bloom ofvividly-coloured blue–green algae stained the river for a thousand kilometresfrom Mungindi to Menindee. Stock and people could not bathe in or drinkfrom the poisoned river, and for most towns that meant reliance on their rain-water tanks and filtered water systems. But for Collarenebri and the WalgettShire Council, it publicised the shameful fact that it was the only town on thewhole river which had no filtration system at all for its drinking water. Isabel’scampaign suddenly looked prophetic. Her contacts with Aboriginal publicservants and her familiarity with the issues made her an important memberof the town’s negotiating team to ensure an upgraded water supply for thewhole town. The ‘troublemaker’ was now a valued citizen!

Isabel: So when that blue–green algae issue came up, Pat Dixon was verygood in supporting me there. She’s a Murri from up this way and she wasin the Public Works Office in Canberra then. When she said she’d be upthere, she’d be there. It started to develop into the local people turningagainst the Shire, which should’ve done it anyhow, for everyone. And atlast they had this big meeting and they invited people to go along to it,and a fellow from Canberra said: ‘Look, this should’ve happened 13 yearsago. So what are you all on about? It’s twice the price now. In another10 years it’s going to be twice the price again’. Yes, so that was a big issuethat brought about changes. But in the end it didn’t take much arguingthe point once Pat and a few others got involved in Canberra, and theymore or less said, ‘Come on, this is what’s got to happen here’.

So they decided that it had to go ahead. And oh God, when ithappened! When they got that sewage pond and the filtered water thenthey did have a big do: the Shire did this and the Shire did that!

The big issues of housing and infrastructure were major preoccupations forIsabel, but the issues closest to her heart were still the questions about howto make the relationships between land, people and culture stronger. The

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 210

Page 229: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

cemetery remained at the forefront of her attention. In 1988 she had organ-ised for a group of researchers to come up and follow up the earlier NationalParks and Wildlife Service work with a proper survey of the graveyard and anattempt to identify and document the burials.4 Working from her small officein the Land Council building, she used the results from that survey to gainsmall packets of funding here and there for better protection, like newfencing. And she persisted with the land claim over the cemetery area,repeatedly writing to the Lands Department which seemed at that stage tohave lost the claim in its endless corridors.

But another project had lain uneasily on her conscience for many years.She had always worried that they had let Mick down when he alone tried tostop the removal of the carved trees from Collymongle station in 1956. Mostof the few remaining trees had been cut down too, but were taken to theenclosed garden of the Collymongle homestead. Isabel had become more andmore angry over the years, but was in an awkward position because as awoman she felt unable to take the major responsibility for taking steps toretrieve objects believed to be restricted to men’s view.

Land Rights on the Ground


Demanding the repatriation of the Collymongle carved trees, shown here in the privategarden of the Collymongle homestead, c. 1987. Isabel stands with her sister-in-lawIsobelle, and Melva Nicholls from Walgett and Collarenebri. The three women, supportedby Tony Flick and Karen Flick (who took the photo), had just confronted the manager ofCollymongle, which had by then become a large cotton company.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 211

Page 230: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel: They put those 11 trees in the homestead garden as ornaments,and I guess the fact that Dad was so concerned about the cutting downof those trees in the first place, stuck in my mind. I kept talking to Parksand Wildlife officers and saying: ‘These carved trees in the garden outthere don’t belong there really. And I feel insulted that they’re just beingused for their little ornaments with water spraying over them and they’reall covered in green slime’. And I could see them deteriorating and so Ibegan trying to get some kind of action there.

Different Boards of Directors of Collymongle would say: ‘Look, whenwe bought this property we bought everything on it’. And I kept main-taining that they were our property. And it really wasn’t nice to get intothat, because here I was, on my own, and I was a woman, I didn’t have thatright really—according to our law—but I knew that someone had to do it.

They finally said, ‘Get them out of the garden, take them where youwant to take them’. Then I didn’t know where to take them! We didn’thave a keeping place in town, and so when we finally got them out ofthere, we just had a little gazebo built and placed a little bit away fromthe property house itself. That is just until we can get some place of ourown where we can take them and preserve them for the future gener-ation. So we still need to do a lot of work there, just on that.

At least we got the freedom now to be able to just take themwherever we want to take them. And it seemed silly at the time, that wecouldn’t do that. Because I maintain too that they were always ours.There were 98 trees, I think, on that Bora Ground, carved trees. Andnow there’s one still standing. There is a video of them actually being cutdown and taken away. The bulk of them are in Adelaide, in a museumin Adelaide which seems so stupid. Then there’s some in Brisbane. Sothey’re scattered all over the country. And then recently, two of the onesthat we had in the gazebo were stolen. And I suppose that’s likely tohappen again, who can tell?

They were stolen very carefully. Oh, it was a well planned operation,because they cut the wire mesh around the gate and levered them outthrough there and just stood it all up again. It was done on the weekend.So they’re in someone’s private collection I guess. And there’s all kindsof little backyard museums happening everywhere, so I suppose if wecould we’d find those two carved trees in one of those.

That was another assault on us, you can say it’s another form ofabuse. Because it’s just abusing the things that mean so much to people.And, even though the people don’t talk about it a lot, it does mean a lotto people. I think people don’t talk about it because they lack the confi-dence to come out openly and say that.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 212

Page 231: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Finding a way to bring the rest of the trees home required a proper place tohouse them and a team of custodians who must be male. There were very fewolder men in Collarenebri: the reality of Aboriginal mortality statistics is thetragic early deaths of men, many in their fifties. By the early 1990s, Isabel’sgeneration of strong older people in Collarenebri had few surviving men. Sheworried over how the process could be undertaken, but was confident it wouldprogress in the hands of Roy and Ted Thorne and her brother Joe and hisson, Joey. In the meantime, with the Land Council members, Isabel workedtowards organising occasional small bush trips, just for the day, taking outolder members of the community, as she talked around the idea of a culturalcentre which might one day serve the many purposes which were still needed.

In 1993, Isabel’s work was warmly honoured by two communities, herown at Collarenebri, and also at Brewarrina, who each presented her withtheir Community Awards. Isabel appreciated these awards deeply and wasmoved that the years she had spent trying to make changes had been valuedby her own mob. Then later in the year Tranby Aboriginal Co-operativeCollege awarded her its first honorary doctorate. She wrote later that whilethe OAM was a strategically important acknowledgment from government ofher role, the Tranby award meant far more to her—she had watched theCollege mature over the years under Kevin Cook’s management to itsflourishing as a rich source of inspiration and support for so many activistslike herself. The award was so valuable to her that she felt it would also beworthy recognition for the lifelong work of her brother Joe and one of thefirst things she did was to write to Tranby to nominate him for the award,which was bestowed in the following year. For herself, she was proud to havebeen honoured by the organisation she admired so much. Not bad, shethought, for an Old Aboriginal Moll!

Land Rights on the Ground


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 213

Page 232: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

10Sisters, 1993 on

Early in 1993, Isabel’s sister Rose finally came home to Collarenebri, bringinganother change into Isabel’s life. Rose moved into the bus on the Block, justas Brenda and her family shifted nearby into a caravan for a while. Rose andIsabel had always shared their father’s trait of being tightlipped about theirprivate lives. Ironically, in this small community where everyone knew mostthings about almost everyone else, neither of the sisters had ever talked easilyabout their personal relationships or their deepest feelings. Rose’s time inLeeton had been difficult and in order to cope with that she had built up asteely defensive wall around herself while she was down there. It was onlywhen she returned home that Isabel began to learn more about Rose’s lifethere. By the same token, because Rose had had to cut herself off from herfamily, she knew very little about Isabel’s life till she came back to Collaren-ebri. Rose has remembered the way they slipped easily into their childhoodnicknames as they slowly got to know each other again—Charlie for Rose,Georgie for Isabel:

Rose: I went down to Leeton and reared my family. And when mymarriage broke up I came home. I’d come home before and I’d gone backagain, ’cause I’d used kids as an excuse. But this time I had no kids, I onlyhad a dog. When I first come home to stay, I said I wanted to be broughtup to date. She and I used to go for drives up the road there, theMungindi road or Moree road. I asked about her. And she asked aboutme. She said, ‘Look, all you ever done, Charlie, was work! You done


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 214

Page 233: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

nothing interesting!’ I said, ‘Never done nothing interesting!’ I wasalways making sure that kids went through to year 12, I had to get kidsto uni, do all those things, that was part of that way of thinking. Thenwork to pay off a place. I used to write stories, but I always used to plantmy stories ’cause I wasn’t allowed to write! I never learnt to be happy, tillI got home. But that’s life.

Then when I got home and learnt what she did, I thought ‘No, no,no . . .’ I’d have pulled up a long time before she did! And when sheheard about how I used to work, she said, ‘No way in the world I’d workfor a man like that . . .’! But I tried to explain to her, ‘No, this was aboutowning something’. I thought the kids might have wanted the propertywhen we finished up, but she worked just as hard, mentally. ’Cause I justworked with men, she worked with an army! An army!

One of the ways Isabel had survived in the often frustrating conditions atCollarenebri was by keeping her sense of the ridiculous alive. She had aquirky, ribald sense of humour and an unquenchable desire to make fun of thecircumstances they all faced as Rose recalled:

Rose: Everyone knew Isabel as a political, powerful woman, but we’dbeen separated for over 30 years. And when I came home, I got to seethis powerful woman, building houses, making things work for herpeople. But there is another little side of her I liked. We often did thingsthat no one could believe that this powerful woman would be doing.

It started off one night. At two o’clock one morning she beeped thehorn at my place in a bus down on her Block. I thought something waswrong, I run out, ‘What now? What now?’ ‘Oh I got a meeting in Bourketomorrow and I’m worried about these fellas’. This business she was goingdown to was that Orana Haven was folding in Brewarrina at the time andshe had to go down there to try to sort that out. I said, ‘Well what’s thatgot to do with me?’ ‘Come on’, she said, ‘down there tomorrow I’ve gotto part the waters! But I’ll show you what I can do tonight’.

So, I went back in and got my shoes on, and we went downtown. Sheparked up near the Land Council and she was looking down the streetthere. And she said, ‘I bet I can do something you never thought I coulddo! I can drive on the footpath of Collarenebri and no one can see me!’

And I said, ‘No!!!’ ’Way she went on the footpath! She turnedaround there near the pub and came up again near the bank.

And she says then, ‘I’ll bet you I can do something you neverthought I could do!’ ‘Ah well, what is it going to cost me?’ ‘Three friedscones and a dry curry!’ This is going on to half-past two, quarter to three



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 215

Page 234: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

by the time she’s taken off. So I said, ‘What is it you’re gonna do?’ ‘I’mgonna turn my car on a sixpence in the middle of the bridge!’ And I said,‘Isabel! Police straight over there!’ ‘Oh, they’re too sleepy to get out oftheir own way, them fellas!’ So then we took off, straight down the street.And she was just like a professional, eh! Braked it and spun the car rightaround, and I couldn’t say nothing! When she faced the car back uptowards the Land Council office and she said, ‘There! If that’s not worththree fried scones and a dry curry I know nothing!’

And I said, ‘Don’t let people know you done this’. She said, ‘Oh no,there’s only you but I know you weak; you likely to pot me!’ And I said,‘Oh no, you’re a powerful woman!’ And when we got back to her placeshe said, ‘Now, get into it girl!’ So I had to make her these three friedscones and a dry curry!

Rose’s presence brought Isabel company, a sounding board and someone to letoff steam with. But Rose also brought some much needed administrativeback-up to ease the bookwork Isabel still laboriously completed each day. Aglimpse of how heavily this weighed on Isabel is in this story Rose tells:

Rose: One day I was sitting down there where I’d come to live, with RayHall . . . She come down in the car, four o’clock in the afternoon. Shesaid, ‘Mate, get up here, I’m in a mess!’ And the look on her face, she wasin a mess too! So I grabbed the thongs and went! ‘Look’, she said, ‘I gotthree weeks missing from the accounts I got to send to the State LandCouncil. And I said, ‘Oh you couldn’t have that, you do them every day!And all I do on the following week is check them up’. She said, ‘Well,I’m three weeks out!’

So I goes through them. I never went home till one or two o’clock.Isabel come in at one o’clock and said, ‘Did you find ’em?’ ‘Yes’, I said.‘You come in the morning, ring up the State Office, and you’ll find thatthose three weeks are sitting in Coonamble, in the regional office.They’ve already gone!’ She said, ‘No! They couldn’t be, Charlie! I toldyou I was losing my mind!’ Next morning she rings me up, ‘What you gotto eat down there?’ I said ‘Nothing, you bring me a loaf of bread and I’llmake you a sandwich’. She said, ‘No, I want a curry! You make the onionand potato and tomato and I’ll bring the cabanna down’. When shebrought it down I said, ‘Did you ring up?’

She said, ‘Yes, those three sitting in Coonamble!’ She’d already sentthem down, and I only had to put the fourth week for the month in. Andlook, she was raging, she blamed herself for it, saying, ‘I’m too old forthis’.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 216

Page 235: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

She used to do all those figures herself, and tax! Then when I comethere in 1993, I used to do all her monthly reports and that took a bit offher. But she’d do the tax and the super all herself! And all with herlimited education, eh? And she did all the bank reconciliations and allthe cheque recs. She did all that herself.

Having kept away from organisations in Leeton, Rose was a keen observer ofthe way the office worked:

Rose: And then on top of that she would handle all the problems of thecommunity. Some would come in: ‘Oh somebody went to gaol, he wasdown there for three days, he’s in for 18 months, can I ring . . .’ Thenthere’d be a bit of mix up in gaols, she’d be ringing around trying to findout what gaol these people was in. And then someone’d come in withinsurance claims, wouldn’t know where to go, and she’d say, ‘Look, ringthis lawyer, tell him all your problems, make an appointment to see him’.So she set these Murris up with appointments for lawyers. Shearers’d comein, ‘What do I do about my group certificates, I lost all my group certifi-cates . . .’ ‘Oh, this is how you do it, you write to this department . . .’ Andshe’d do that beside the land council!

And bringing people’s bodies home! They’d come in there, ‘Oh hedied in Tamworth or he died in Mildura’, or wherever he died, you know,somewhere out of town, and they didn’t know how to bring the bodyhome! And she’d say: ‘Oh I’ll ring so-and-so, they’ll know about it, andI’ll ring the Land Council down there where you are, and we’ll set up away to bring him home!’ And they did that. So you think about that!That wasn’t Land Council business, that was community business!

Then every meeting up at the hospital now! She’d go up. She didn’thave to go up, but she’d go! And meeting with the Shire in Walgett. Shedidn’t have to, but she’d go, because she always said: ‘WhateverCollarenebri gets I want to know what they’re giving us! They’re notgonna push it on us no more!’

The formal parts of community work weren’t the only thing that Isabel wasinvolved in:

Rose: Then the football went kaput! They couldn’t even get them totrain or nothing! So she got onto it, she knew the police and she gotonto one of the constables who was willing to start it again. Then shemade up raffle books and she said, ‘Go on, you go out and sell these’. Andthey did, and they started to get money in again. She said, ‘We having afootball knockout this year!’ and I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again!’



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 217

Page 236: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

‘Get them Murris together’, she told us, ‘call a meeting’. She gotBrenda’s daughter, Bernadette, to print up this notice. They all come tothis meeting! So she was elected, her and Pat Mundy, and somebody else.She said, ‘You, Charlie, you make sure you count the money when itsfinished. And get over there, you and your old man, youse do nothing! Getover there and handle the barbeque!’ ’Cause Ray had never done nothinglike that in his life! And so we into it! Me and him! Gravy and steak! Andthen she said to somebody else: ‘You handle the soft drinks, only the softdrinks!’ And ‘you’, to another one, ‘you handle the little bits and pieces’.She had it all set up. ‘And you handle the gate, I want the money off thegate, I don’t want anybody bullshitting to me’, she said. Now she got a bitof money from some funding body or other. And she started it again!

I remember when the knockout was over, she came in and said,‘Here you are, Money Counters! Count this!’ and these four people whowas involved with the day, we counted the money and we had $7000.And she said, ‘Well that’s what we made for today. That’s not our originaloutlay. Outlay’s in there’. She opened this other bag. And they couldn’tbelieve it that they’d made $7000 for the day! We all sitting round thetable, money all rolled up! She had it in a bank bag, with a little rubberband around it. ‘That goes to the bank. This goes back to the fundingbody.’ And she said, ‘There, youse can do it!’ And all these young mensaying, ‘You neat all right Aunty Is!’ And I started to sing . . . ‘You’resimply the best . . .’ and she got up on the chair and was dancin’, swingin’her hips! So we called her Tina Turner after that, ’cause she pulled it off!She was ‘simply the best’!

Yeah, we had fun! It was a happy time! We had fun. She started thatback up from nothing!

And then there was the night the littlies done their Deb. She gotthe money for the debutantes. And she went up and seen all these littleMurri boys in their suits and all the little girls in their prissies . . . Andthese little kids for 15 minutes. They was little angels. Dancing andwalking and posing for photographs.

But the persistent reality of Collarenebri was continuing poverty and a frus-trating despair, with all their symptoms of alchohol abuse, violence, communitytensions and apathy. Isabel’s resilience was all the more extraordinary becauseshe kept bouncing back in the face of inertia, community frustration anddisarray—not to mention her own bouts of depression. She had a tough senseof strategy which she applied to all her planning, and she tried to impart someof this to Rose, who had channelled her energies over the years into informallysupporting children at risk in one-on-one relationships:

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 218

Page 237: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Rose: See, I’m a kid person, and she asked me, ‘Do you want to learnabout politics with kids?’ I said, ‘No, no. Politics don’t mix with kids, kidsis different!’ She said, ‘You’ll find out! You’re too headstrong. You thinkit’s all rosie! I want you to learn about politics!’

So she used to take me out on the Mungindi road, and we’d be sittingeating lunch, ’cause she couldn’t have peace in town. If she was up at thehouse, somebody’d be there singing out, ‘Aunty Is!’ or if she was in theLand Council, somebody’d come and want to ask her something. So she’dsay, ‘Come on, we’ll go up on the Moree road, Sis, park on the river’.

And one day we was sitting there talking about all these little kids,there was about four going through bad times at that time. ‘Gee, what wegonna do about them Charlie?’ We didn’t know what we was gonna do.So she said, ‘You got friends in DOCS?1 Let’s try to help these kids’. Sowe had a few yarns with these people in DOCS. One time they took achild from there, and both of us was involved in it. They took that childillegally! They come along, took the baby off the father. ’Cause themother had already taken the baby, she was only about 14 or 15. So wewere sitting there [in court] and DOCS had all these questions. Andthen we put our argument, that we believed that the child should be withthe mother, but the mother was a child herself; whereas the baby, if helived with his father, the grandmother would be there. So we got awaywith that one, changed DOCS’ mind then.



Isabel (left) and Rose (right).

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 219

Page 238: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

But our plans on one of these lunch breaks was, one day—probablywould have been this year—to try to make some changes throughATSIC.2 I remember us talking up the road, there in the lunch break,that we was going to go up there and challenge the State Land Counciland ATSIC to take kids, every school holidays, get them away from thedrugs and the drunks and the abuse, learn them how to shut a gate, opena gate, ride a bike, check the sheep, work with computers (’cause at thattime, computers was gonna be the magic thing). And we were lookingforward to that strategy, and we was also looking forward to placing kidsin year 12 for holidays, in the Legal Services. Not for work experience,but for holidays. She said, ‘Kids don’t need to be sitting in front of TVall the time’, so we was gonna take a year 12 student, take ’em down tothe Legal Service, have them hang around there for a week or two. Sendthem to the Medical Service, have them hang around there for a weekor two. Then if Social Security would have them, even [for] $25 a week,or ATSIC or somebody like that . . . trying to make doors open . . .

You know where we drew it all up? On the lunch wrapper of a hamand cheese sandwich. She took the ham and I took the cheese. And shesaid, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t bring paper’. You know how she’d fuss,but we found this pen . . . and she’s writing this up then, see. And I said,‘Do it like a family tree, start from year 12’, because this is for 16 and17 year olds. And we were doing ALSs and AMSs and up like that andwhen we got to the top, that’s when we got to the 13 and 14s. And thenshe said, ‘We can put 12 year olds in too!’ It was like a big family tree:these the ones that can go onto properties. And now ATSIC, the onesthat I’ve spoken to, they say, ‘Well we have to look at the insuranceclauses!’ But we’re not finished there . . . That was our last plan. Weknew that we couldn’t beat DOCS with the babies, because there’s toomuch there. Well, we thought we might beat ’em in about five years.

But about the older kids, she said the way to do it was to get anaudience; so now I’ve got to go back and get an audience. I’ll do it theway she said!

Each of the Flick sisters knew about difficult marital relationships, withLubby’s tragic death the worst case. The repetitive cycles of beatings andintimidation seemed inescapable at times and all of these women found it washard to vent the frustration they felt, whether they had escaped violent re-lationships or whether they were still locked into them.

For Rose, her married life had involved violence as well as repressiveisolation. For Clara, the violence had been entangled with alcoholism in aseries of relationships. When Rose came back home to Collarenebri, she

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 220

Page 239: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

found herself drawn in to Isabel’s strategies to protect Clara if possible, or atleast to intervene in emergencies:

Rose: Now one time, Isabel comes down about three o’clock in themorning, beeping the horn, ‘Come on, come on!’ she was saying. ‘What’swrong now?’ ‘Come on, we got to go over to Clare’s’, she said, ‘her and herbloke fighting’. ‘Oh gee’ I said, ‘I wish she’d leave that man!’ ‘Me too’, shesaid, ‘but we can’t help it’. So we gets over there and they’re sitting there.Isabel says, ‘Get in here, go on, get in here’. Clare says, ‘Oh I’ll goanywhere with you, Sis’. She was half cut anyway, and she’s sitting in theback. Isabel turned the corner and she was heading for Moree. Now we’regoing along, and then she stopped the car in the middle of the road, musthave been out about 20 miles. She stopped the car, and here’s this massivebig kangaroo standing in front of her headlights, eh? And she said to me:‘Get out there. Now, that’s Clara’s man out there. Get out there and kickshit out of him!’ And I said, ‘You mean it?’ She said, ‘Yeah, and I’ll helpyou!’ Now Clare’s sitting in the back, and I can hear the seatbelts click;she must have moved forward to watch what we was gonna do.

So I go out and I called this kangaroo everything! And I’m pretend-ing to kick my legs in the air, and Isabel’s getting out on the other side.And this went on for about five or 10 minutes. We called this kangarooeverything! And the kangaroo’s just standing there looking at us! Andshe’s poking her head out over the door and she’s swearing at him: ‘I’llkick your guts out! If I can get you on the ground I’ll jump all over you!’

Then all of a sudden, lights went on over on the side of the road.There was a caravan parked in the dark near a tree! Isabel saw it and shecalled out, ‘Oh, quick Charlie! Run!’ Well, I had to run about 15 metres,because this kangaroo was up the road, and I run back all right. I canremember Isabel’s old legs getting caught in the door when she tried toget her legs back in quick! And the drunken one in the back waslaughin’! Just pissing herself! Isabel put her car into gear and took offdown the road! And you can imagine when I got back in. My heart waspounding so much, ’cause I was exhausted from kickin’ this kangaroo todeath, eh? And then to have enough breath to run!

Well, we laughed from there right up to Belalah Hall. Isabel said,‘Oh dear that was fun!’ And Clare said, ‘Yeah, I’m sober in the backhere now!’

There were a lot of phantoms on the Moree road that night getting their justdeserts in this pantomime which was the closest to revenge most of thewomen were ever likely to get.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 221

Page 240: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Having Rose around had lightened Isabel’s load, but by the end of 1994she was tiring. She gave a speech that year to Tranby students on a quick tripto Sydney. Her edginess showed in the words she used to begin her talk: ‘Wemove from one anxious state to another. I would say this state of mind is ourinheritance’.

Over the years, Isabel had developed ways to cope with the pressures ofsmall town politics. Rose was seeing some of them, but Isabel had others. Shedrew strength from the places like the cemetery, which, she explained, hadbrought her close not only to the people who had died, but to the memoriesof how they had coped with life:

Isabel: We never feel that the people we’ve lost are too far away from us.When I was working in the organisations, I used to feel sometimes thatthe people didn’t understand what I was doing, especially when I wasinvolved with Land Councils and the Land Rights Act. One lot tends tothink that you’re Black Power, that you’re really involved in that.Another lot just can’t see any sense in having those kind of things. Soyou become an isolated person. And you have to condition yourself tocontinue to work along to try and achieve what you wanna do.

And I felt a lot of times that when I came up here to the cemetery Iwas able to relax. I could think about some situations that we faced withDad. And different other people that might not be of my family, but whohad a lot of really coping qualities. You look back and you can think, ‘Ohdear, I don’t know how so-and-so coped with that kind of situation whenthat happened in their family’. And I used to go away from here feelingso inspired by coming up here and spending time. I’d go back and think,‘Well I can handle that’. Whereas when I came up at first, I’d think,‘Well I can’t handle anymore’.

And I’d gone through a period when the people see you as anofficial. Like when I was involved in Mangankali, the housing company.You had to make decisions according to constitutions and whatever. Andwhen your people don’t understand anything about policies or constitu-tions, you become just an official. And then you know that you’redealing with tough blokes and tough systems. And I used to feel veryisolated.

But there was always people I could turn to. I suppose over the yearsI’ve become a very rich woman, because I could ring someone up inSydney and say, ‘Oh look, I need to go down to Sydney, I haven’t got anymoney. I think I have to get away from this’. And they’d say, ‘Oh, noworries’, you know. And you get away and relax a bit and come back. Orit might be someone down at Bourke I’d ring up, somewhere, living on a

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 222

Page 241: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

reserve; you still had that kind of support of special people, you know.Just a few days away to relax a bit, I reckon. I always said to my friends,‘I’m a very rich woman in one way, because I’ve got a terrible lotta friendsin all kind of circles, you know?’

Isabel had continued to try to recruit younger people for the administrativeroles in the Council, but there were few in the town who already had the skillsor who wanted to stay long enough build them up. She was often left withlittle clerical assistance. Bernadette, Isabel’s granddaughter, was employed assecretary at one point, and received some computer training. As Isabel feared,this led to mutterings about nepotism and her computer training was refusedby the Local Land Council chairperson. Isabel repeatedly offered to standBernadette down if the Council directed her to do so, but she was frustratedby the Council members’ reluctance to take on an active role in the manage-ment of the Local. Her attempts to pass her own hard-won knowledge aboutbookkeeping across to the Council members had not borne fruit:

Isabel: Mangankali and the Land Council were both about the same towork in. You never got a lot of people that learnt a lot—that was mydisappointment, because I really tried. Before every meeting at the LandCouncil I would say: ‘Look, I’d like to just put out all the books for youto have a look at, they’re your books. In the end, you’re responsible. AndI want you to have a look at your books to see what kind of cheques havebeen paid out, what kind of income we’ve had so you all know what yourCouncil is doing’. And you know, people used to say: ‘No, we know it’sright’. And then I’d say: ‘But that’s not the issue. You might trust me somuch, but you should look at them and learn for yourselves’. But not alot of people wanted to do that . . .

But the problems ran more deeply than a lack of confidence on the part ofthe Council members. There continued to be severe problems with misap-propriation of funds in the Wollai rents, an issue raised by the auditor in 1993when he noted that a sum of over $34 000 for that year alone was in question.Land Council members still would not move against their openly dishonestrelations. Tensions were rising between Isabel and several office bearers of theCouncil who wanted to direct funds to non-Land Council matters. Isabel wasunhappy in the unpredictable situation. ‘One minute you’re working withbutterflies and the next minute they’re hornets . . .’

She decided to take six weeks’ long service leave early in 1995 and wenton a trip along the river, staying with old friends until she could come backrefreshed. On her return in June, there was good news. A submission she had



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 223

Page 242: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

put in for funds to return the carved trees to Collarenebri from Adelaide andBrisbane had been granted and a cheque for $25 000 was waiting to be used.But the tension within the Local Land Council had become even morepronounced. Isabel was confronted with a demand to approve an expenditureof $500 from Land Council funds which already had been used to pay for abus and other expenses for the football club. She refused to do so. In retalia-tion, the Chairman and Treasurer of the Council refused to sign her payforms, leaving her without an income. Then they refused her the use of theLand Council car when she needed to travel to Moree for medical tests. Isabelappealed to the State Land Council, but they offered little immediateassistance other than to suggest that an independent audit needed to becarried out, in addition to the annual one which all Locals were required toundertake.

Isabel wrote an impassioned letter to all the Local Land Councilmembers, expressing her distress as well as her firm resolve not to concede tothe demands to endorse the misappropriations.3 She told them in her letterthat she had no alternative but resignation. It began: ‘The past seven monthshave been most stressful for me, I have never suffered such rudeness and dis-respect in my 40 years of involvement in ‘‘Aboriginal affairs’’. As I workedfor the better of our people I have travelled Australia-wide and have feltnothing but respect. These past seven months have pushed me to the pointof resignation . . .’

Isabel detailed her concerns about misappropriation and thefts of varioustypes, intimidation and abuse of staff, cancellation of meetings and theserious irregularities now existing in the housing priority list. She finished:‘Nothing will change until members play the major role in decision making.This can only happen if meetings are held on a regular basis. Until proposedpolicies are introduced and the ‘‘rule by fear system’’ is stamped out andmembers have more support from the State Land Council, I am afraid that allour previous efforts are in vain.’

The Local Land Council members were shocked at the conflict but,intimidated by the tactics being employed from the Wollai and by the officebearers of the Land Council, were unable to respond effectively. In the confu-sion, one of the office bearers took the $25 000 cheque for the Collymongletrees and cashed it at the local RSL club!4 The club soon realised it wasn’tlegally allowed to cash a cheque of that size, and had to apply to the policeto ensure that the money was forcibly repaid. But that was little satisfactionto a miserable community.

But Isabel was now facing another crisis. Her medical results had shownalarming signs and it appeared she would be facing major surgery. She alteredher resignation letter to the Local and State Land Councils to make it an

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 224

Page 243: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

application for medical leave and began the sombre task of packing for ahospital stay in Sydney.

It was becoming chillingly clear to Isabel that she was now leaving notjust a job but Collarenebri itself. And that she was going to have to do soalone. After all these years of their close relationship, Ted Thorne hadfound the abuse and threats towards Isabel to be more than he could stand.He lashed out verbally at the office bearer who had been the most aggres-sive in attacking Isabel and promptly found himself hauled before thepolice to answer an apprehended violence restraining order. Angry andfrustrated, Ted felt he had to leave town and perhaps even the relationship,because he couldn’t trust himself any longer not to retaliate further againsther attackers.

Isabel reached Sydney but the first thing she did was to write this letterto Ted:

Sydney, SundayMy Dear Edward,I’m still hoping that you will think about what I said to you. If you hurtthose blokes we will all suffer the rest of our lives. I beg you to thinkabout our lives, you and me!

You are the main part of my life, and I know I mean a lot to you.Only you can give up the Anger and the Grog.

I’m sorry I messed up both of our lives. I’ll always blame myself. I’m going to the doctors tomorrow. I will keep in touch. So all I can say is help me save the rest of our

time. Forget about the ‘boys’. Think about the wonderful love we havetogether. Which is most important?My love always,Bell.

The news in Sydney was bad: Isabel had bowel cancer. But although shewould need surgery, the doctors told her it was likely to be successful and thatshe would make a full recovery. As she prepared herself, Isabel rememberedhow frightened she had been when she had her hysterectomy in 1975. Thistime it was hard, but at least Isabel had beaten the smokes at last.

She was being warmly looked after by Kevin Cook and Judy Chester,who gave up her bed for Isabel and nursed her day and night. And Ted hadanswered her letter by heading for Sydney straight away and he was soonbeside her. Her family were all either in Sydney or in close touch. Among thecards and notes she kept from this time, Isabel treasured a letter from Larry’sdaughter, young Lubby:



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 225

Page 244: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

December 1995To my dearest Grandmother, Life seems to be getting harder and harder every day for everyone. But asyou always said ‘everything has to get worse before it can get better’. AllI can say is that I’m hoping and praying that you get better, not only foryour sake but for ours too. You are the core of this family, even thoughyou sometimes disbelieve it. Nan I love you, you are a fighter and youalways come out winning. See you when you get home. Love you Nan,always will, Lubby

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 226

Page 245: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

11A Wider Focus, 1995–2000

Isabel began to regain her strength soon after her operation in December1995, although it took her longer to recover from the distress of the LandCouncil conflict. Eventually it became clear that however painful it hadbeen, the conflict had actually released her from the frustrations of localpolitics. Isabel could now look more widely across the broader expanses of hercountry and of her life. Even straight after the operation, she knew sheneeded to remake her life again, and she began by looking for constructivethings to do.

Tranby offered what she needed for a while. She could mentor studentsand contribute where she could as a community board member. Her oldfriend Kevin Cook was unwell himself now, his working days shortened withsevere emphysema, and he was often at home with Judy. He encouragedIsabel to use his office in the quiet old Tranby building at Glebe to organiseher letters and keep in touch with her interests. Isabel had conducted herown vast correspondence over the years with her many handwritten lettersand cards. But here at last, with Tranby staff like Chris Kerr, Isabel found theresources she needed to research and to keep track of her correspondence sothat she could contribute to campaigns no matter where she was. She startedout straight away by writing to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in February1996, thanking the staff for their care during her surgery and taking theopportunity to remind the Director and the Chairman of the Board about theneed for more hospital accommodation for the visiting families of ruralpatients.


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 227

Page 246: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Collarenebri was never too far away from her thoughts. Rose had beengoing through eerily parallel health worries, also safely resolved. Characteris-tically, they began planning how they could turn what they were learning tosome advantage for Collarenebri girls and their families:

Rose: When we were both diagnosed with cancer, Isabel rang me up andsaid, ‘You know what I got? I got that big yanggal.1 Cancer!’ She hadbowel cancer and I had ovarian cancer. That was a bad time for both ofus; but afterwards, Isabel started thinking about it: ‘We got to get thesegirls in there, get them checked’. We wanted to get them into the breastscreening, and have them tested for ovarian cancer, ’cause they was allhaving sex early and some of them were being raped. And all this wasworrying us! But the breast screening, they only take them when they’reover 40. Our argument then was, nine out of 10 grandmothers or auntiesare looking after those kids’ kids. And those mothers and grandmothershave got to keep fit. They can’t come down with breast cancer, orovarian cancer. But it’s up to them girls to go back up to their mothersand grandmothers and say, ‘Hey, you got to go up and have a breastscreen. I’ve been in there!’ . . . And they’ll be more influence, then, tomake their parents and grandparents go up there and have a screening.

And I just got a letter back this year, to say when the van comesback next year, they will let in young girls to look at radiology, to look athow that screening’s done, and educate them. And I gave that letter tothe teacher last week. Now we planned that. We’re talking about in 1996and it’s only just starting to happen now in 2002. The other two she andI planned, I’m having trouble with. Getting the kids off the streets.I don’t know why that should be so hard. But the breast screening, that’sone come out of it, see!

Isabel didn’t want to live in Collarenebri, but she didn’t want to be too faraway. Looking around, she thought Gunnedah was promising, nestled inamong hills, very different from the level floodplain of the Barwon. Closeenough to Collarenebri, it was a fair-sized town offering more resources andrelief from the pressure cooker of small town politics.

Isabel needed a town where she was known well enough to feel comfort-able, but not so well known that she would be called on to take a major rolein organisations. Her children would not be too far away. Tony was workingin a cotton gin at nearby Caroll. Although many Murris had gained little butheartache from the cotton industry, Tony was one whose knowledge ofmachines and talent for level-headed management thrived in the heavyindustrial conditions of the cotton gins. Isabel went to stay with Tony in his

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 228

Page 247: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

flat at Gunnedah for a week and liked the feel of the town. Tony’s real estateagent had played football with Ben and so, as Tony remembered, the agenthad ‘forgotten all that racial discrimination stuff’ and found him a good-sizedsemi-detached flat when he first moved to town. The agent was pleased tomeet Isabel, too, and when the front flat on Tony’s block became vacant, heoffered it first to her.

Isabel was eager to get started, but wherever she was, she knew shewanted to be living with Ted. She wrote:

26th February 1996My dear Edward, Just a few lines to let you know that by the time you receive this letterI will have a flat in Gunnedah. The people are going to help me withfurniture and all.

So come on up if you want to have a go at living in Gunnedahwith me.

I miss you very much. Love you very much,Bell

Soon they were back together again, settling in to the comfortable ground-levelflat on a gentle hillside in Gunnedah. Since the start of her job at the LandCouncil, Isabel had kept an appointments diary, which she used to recordmeetings and sometimes to rough out plans for her various activities.

A Wider Focus


Isabel and Ted outside their flat in Gunnedah.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 229

Page 248: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

She continued the diary at Gunnedah and it shows how her life had changed.From the Collarenebri pages crowded with terse notes of meetings, deputationsand disputes, the days at Gunnedah stretched out quietly and serenely, thepages only sparsely marked. There might be notes about a diet she was tryingor records of her exercise, with some motivational notes to herself here andthere. Isabel wanted to try to tackle her health problems now that there wassome support. Rose remembers her buying bike shorts and joining the swim-ming club, good resolutions but harder to keep! There are occasional meetingsin Gunnedah in the early part of the year, and Isabel and Ted travelled by trainto Sydney for a meeting about rural people’s tenancy conditions.

But sometimes the emptiness of these pages suggests that things mighthave been too quiet, as if there was a sense of loneliness around the edges. Withher health returning, it is not hard to imagine that Isabel was becoming eagerfor some community work she could get her teeth into. So she volunteered tohelp organise a festival in Gunnedah and this began to fill the days. On24 September 1996, Isabel’s diary notes sketch out the quickening tempo of herlife: ‘I had a wonderful conversation with Marion Punch who said the ArtsCouncil is holding a meeting tomorrow at four-thirty and that I should contactMichelle Thomas from the Dorothea MacKellar Foundation. I did and had along talk re the festival for Gunnedah. She mentioned a few people and I’mhoping to meet them tomorrow. I invited June Cox in for afternoon tea. Lenther my copy of Heather’s book. She asked me if I’d like to stand for Chair-person of the ‘‘Red Chief’’ Land Council . . .’ But then at the end of the entry:‘I was glad I got busy today because we got word this morning that we’d lost Roy’.

Isabel and Ted went back to Colle for Roy Thorne’s funeral, Ted grievingfor his brother and Isabel for a good friend. Isabel said in her eulogy:

Isabel: The highs and lows of Roy Thorne were many and varied, spread-ing across the times of Aboriginal Protection to the present system,ATSIC. We went to school together, which was correspondence classesat the ‘Manse’ in Collarenebri. Roy always had a desire to see changes forour people, especially young people, as I did. So we spent most of ourlives advocating changes, together. Sometimes I think I spent more timewith Roy than Josie, his wife, because we hitchhiked everywhere attend-ing meetings. I’m honoured to have shared some of Roy’s dreams.

This was a difficult time for both Isabel and Ted, because they each lost peoplethey were close to in quick succession. There was Rene Mills, a good friendand sister-in-law to Isabel because she was the sister of Aub Weatherall,Doreen Hynch and Rosie Flick. And then there was Ted’s sister Jessie Hall,who had been one of Isabel’s greatest mates. Isabel remembered travelling to

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 230

Page 249: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

see each of them. They were all now living outside Collarenebri, but theirfriendships had endured:

Isabel: We lost a couple of my real dear friends, first there was Aub’s sisterRene, and then there was Ted’s sister, Jessie. They sent for me to go therefor Aub’s sister. She was in Tamworth. I did want to go and I didn’t wantto go, and in the end I just packed my swag and away I went. And as soonas I walked in she said: ‘Oh, my sister’s come to see me’. And she was justdone, she had lung cancer. And she said: ‘Oh I was silly I wouldn’t takenotice of you’. Because I used to be riding her about smoking and I said:‘Oh, we did it different. I used to smoke too, you know’. And she said:‘Yes, but you tried to get me off them. And I couldn’t take any notice.But I just want to tell you I love you. You were always like a sister to me’.Oh God! I don’t know what I said. When you’re feeling so muchemotionally . . . there’s nothing else you can say except to just hold theirhand and things like that. And everybody trying to be cheerful andeverything around her, you know. And old Aub was there and Doreenand you know, it was a real sad time.

And then we just get over that . . . and then this other one sends forme. The same thing. I went back a couple of times to visit her. She’d say:‘Oh, my old mate’s coming to see me. But, she’s not a mate, she’s mysister. She was my sister long before she got to Ted, you know’. I can stillhear her saying: ‘Oh, we was always sisters, we did everything when wewas kids’. We did do everything together too, even smoked bloomin’roots in the gully—our first cigarette.

It was hard to go through all that again. I realised I had to get goingquick. It was a time when I knew I couldn’t sit down and grieve. And I’dthink . . . I’ve got to get up and stop feeling bad about that, because I’mwasting time. And oh, I just didn’t want to be in the one place. AndI don’t think I’ve stopped since then.

During that sadness, the relationships which were building in Gunnedahgave Isabel some comfort. When she finally did get to her first meeting aboutthe festival, she wrote: ‘Attended the Gunnedah Festival Committee andjoined that committee of 10. I was made to feel very welcome.’

Isabel’s trips back to Colle, although they were times of grief, also allowedher to spend time with her family and her old friends there, like DoreenHynch and Josie Thorne. Funerals, with their familiar rituals and time forreflection, gave Isabel a chance to renew her deepest and easiest relationshipswith the place and the people. It was a relief to return to her home withoutthe baggage of a role in any organisation.

A Wider Focus


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 231

Page 250: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The enduring value of her Land Council work was becoming clear. Theland claim over the cemetery finally came through in June 1996, so at longlast this important place was officially back in the hands of its owners. By thistime, the independent auditor’s report into the Local Land Council hadvindicated Isabel completely, endorsing her concerns and supporting herrecommendations. The Local itself had been brought under the control of anadministrator, an outside accountant whose sole job was to get the organis-ation back into an orderly financial state. The auditor’s report was satisfyingfor Isabel, but in fact she had moved on. She had a new sense of urgency, butalso a wider vision of the things she wanted to accomplish.

A compelling desire was to draw together the threads of her mother’sfamily. In many ways much of the work Isabel had done in Collarenebri wasbecause she had accepted her father’s sense of responsibility for his country,his history. On Mick’s death, Isabel and her brother Joe, perhaps more thanany of the other family members at that time, had taken on Mick’s role asadvocate for the people and the places of Collarenebri. But over the yearsIsabel had come to recognise the interference in family life which the old‘Protection’ system had caused.

As she nursed her mother before her death, Isabel had become more awareof how deeply Celia had been disturbed by the severance from her family andhow effectively it had cut Isabel and her brothers and sisters off from their

Isabel Flick


Isabel, Clare and Rose around the time they were planning their trip to Queensland. Theyare having lunch with Rose’s daughter, Marjorie (on left), where Rose was staying whileher house in Collarenebri was being built.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 232

Page 251: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

relations on the Queensland side of the border. Since Rose’s return after the longyears away at Leeton, the reunited sisters all felt the need to reconnect with thefamily they had lost. Isabel’s diary in 1996 mentions the letters she was writingand then the phone calls to cousins and aunties in Cherbourg and Townsville,kin she had been dimly aware of but had never really followed up. She began tolearn about the struggles they had had under the notorious Queensland Actfrom which her parents had escaped. Isabel began planning a trip for herself,Rose and Clara, by bus to Cherbourg to meet their Aunty Marge, their mother’sremaining sister, for the first time since Isabel’s childhood.

Rose: Well, Isabel wanted to go and see Aunty Margie. She said ‘Okay,we off!’ It was five o’clock in the morning we had to leave. She was allspiffy and bubbly. So we’d made the plan that I would handle the meals,Clara would handle the luggage and Isabel would handle the bookings.See . . . co-operation! So I packed all the meals, eh? Clara draggin’ allthese cases over. Nine out of 10 times somebody else’d help her ’causethey’d see this old woman draggin’ the cases over. We gets to this placethen and it’s lunchtime. Made Isabel have her little salad sandwich,great. Get to another place for tea time.

I spread the meals out again. Old Sister was missin’. So we go inthere to the shop and she’s sittin’ in there, big plate of veges and chipsand chops. She said, ‘There’s yours there, Charlie, you’re a vegetarian!’Chips and gravy! ‘See how you eatin’ bad again’, I said to her. But that’swhat she’d do to us.

But when we got to old Aunty’s, eh? Isabel had all the accommoda-tion all organised. When we got to Brisbane, the bus come and picked usup, took us down to the hostel. Everything was just neat. Clara draggin’the luggage along, and I’m carrying the food bin along, ’cause Isabelwouldn’t eat the good food I’d brought! She wanted to have hercabanossi and cabanna! Well then, when we seen Aunty then, wecouldn’t believe it, ’cause Aunty looked like Clara!’

The trip was important to Isabel, as well as being good fun to be on the roadwith her sisters, and she wanted to do it again. This time, a strong support forher was her youngest daughter. After her tearaway youth, Amy had developeda mature confidence as she reared up her own children, and she was eagernow to find her own place in the wider family. So they began to organiseagain, as Rose remembers:

Rose: Then Isabel rings up and says she wants to go back. I said, ‘Well,make it a pension week!’ So we off again! I drove my car this time, and

A Wider Focus


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 233

Page 252: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

we had me and her, Amy come with us that time, and Clara. And wedrove all the way. And Isabel laughed and giggled all the way up . . . Thefirst time we went there, when we went away old Aunty stood there andlaughed. She thought to herself that she’d never see us again.

And then this time, when we’re driving away, Aunty stood at thegate and she just cried. She was hooked up to oxygen, but she cried. Andthen Clara started crying, then Isabel cried, and so I had to pull the carover on the side of the road and the three of us cryin’ on the Murgonroad then . . . Yeah! But it was great fun!

For Isabel there was a painful gap in her mother’s story and this was the babysister they had lost when Celia was visiting Isabel and Joe at Toomelah duringthe early 1940s. Isabel had never seen the baby’s grave, and only knew thatshe had been buried in Goondawindi, the Queensland town just across theborder, on the northern side of the Macintyre River to Boggabilla andToomelah. Now, as she travelled around, she was often in Toomelah, so shestarted to make inquiries from the Goondawindi authorities to try to find thatgrave. She believed it was in the Anglican section, as that was the nominalreligion her mother would have put down on the forms, but although thefamily searched, they couldn’t find the grave.

Isabel’s trips to Toomelah had borne fruit in another way. She had beentalking with old friends there like Julie Whitton and Ada Jarrett about a wayto record their early memories of the community. This was a time of culturalrenaissance in Toomelah. Work was being done by community members likeAutrey Dennison, Les and Ursula McGrady and others in tracing their histo-ries and considering how they could restore confidence in speaking theirlanguage to the younger members of the community. They had beensupported by friends like Dick Buchhorn and Peter Thompson to help withresearch and submissions for funding. The upshot was a series of community-controlled projects which linked memories, places and language intoeducational programs in the local schools.

This was work which Rose had plunged into when she came back fromLeeton, and she was eager to work on Gamilaraay language with theToomelah community too. Isabel, Rose and their friends developed the ideaof a record of their generation of women’s memories of life and language atToomelah in the 1930s and 1940s. Their submission was welcomed by theNational Parks and Wildlife Service, which was interested in the document-ing of women’s heritage at that time. So with Carol Kendall’s support inNPWS, and with filmmaker Kate Richards, Isabel joined with the womenwith whom she shared her youth in Toomelah and made the film, InardOongalli: Women’s Journey.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 234

Page 253: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The filming was done in sessions over 1998, with final sections still beingshot early in 1999. Isabel was tired by then, busy with many other projects,and it was a great effort for her to get to that last filming session. But she wasdetermined to be there, so Carol and Kate picked her up with Rose fromCollarenebri where Isabel was working with me on the documention ofthe Collarenebri cemetery. They spent two hectic days shooting interviews.Isabel’s presence on film is vivid and evocative, showing her tiredness, butoften catching her relaxing into warm anecdotes and laughter.

While they were there, Isabel and Rose decided to have one more deter-mined look for Ceatrice’s grave:

Rose: So we went across to Goondawindi and looked through all therecords. It was as if she had it pre-planned . . . ‘We’ll go here, then we’llgo to the Shire . . .’ And we went from the Shire down to another place. . . everything . . . but all the doors were sort of blocked, you know. Shewouldn’t have it. She said, ‘I’ll go and have a rest and I’ll come back thisafternoon and I’ll up this bloke. There’s something this wanda’s2 nottelling me! ’Cause they only showed her one book, see, one register. Soshe come back in the afternoon, and she up him again, about two-thirty,and then they brought this other book out then, that was it! She wasburied in the ‘paupers’ graves!

And we went out to the cemetery, but there was nothing there inthe paupers graves, nothing there where the Heathens and the China-mens was, nothing there. Then we were just turning around and welooked and there was Granny Jane just behind us. We’d never found hergrave before. And then Isabel said, ‘Well, we’ll stay here tonight andwe’ll come back in the morning’.

And in the morning she went back, and she up’d them again. Nextminute he went in and came back with another record. Then he wentout over to the graves and he put a peg there. ‘That’s where she is there’,he said. And that’s through her persistence. A lot of people like me,I would have just drove off and left it, but not her.

For Isabel, this lonely grave on the border kept returning to her thoughts,reminding her of the damage done to their family by the removal policies oftwo governments and by the destructive border itself. She was hurt by thebaby’s location in the ‘paupers and Chinamens’ section. The many babies’graves in the Collarenebri Aboriginal cemetery were always dug close tothose of grandparents or aunties, bringing some comfort to the grievingfamily who felt that the older relations would look after their recently deadchildren. Isabel felt deeply that Ceatrice should be resting close to her

A Wider Focus


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 235

Page 254: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

parents, where her grave could be cared for by her living relations atCollarenebri. As Isabel and her family talked it over, the idea slowly formedthat they would try to have their sister’s remains reburied at Collarenebri.Knowing this would be a long process, Isabel called on her old friend PeterThompson, whose archaeological training would allow him to carry out anexhumation once the Council had approved the process. Isabel trusted himto look after Ceatrice’s remains and bring them home for her family.

Isabel had been thinking about the cemetery since she left Collarenebri,working out how to consolidate the research she had commissioned previ-ously, and to do it in such a way that it could be updated whenever newburials took place. She was interested in how computers could help thecommunity do this, both by drawing maps which could be updated easily andby developing databases which could become a family history resource in thehands of the community. She called on the computing teachers at Tranby togive her some advice, and drew me in too because I was using digital mediato portray Aboriginal history with her niece, Karen. Isabel wasn’t interestedin computers for their own sake; she wanted to use them to put resources intothe hands of people in Collarenebri, so they wouldn’t need any particularindividuals, including herself, to be there in order to sustain their controlover their own culture and history.

We travelled up to Colle for field trips in 1997 and 1998, talking toeveryone in the community about how they would like a database to work.We spent days in the cemetery, walking slowly around with different groupsof people, comparing memories about who was buried in each of theunmarked graves. Some of the graves had been identified with help fromHarry Denyer, Henry’s son—who was now the town’s undertaker—duringthe painstaking reviews of death registers and undertakers’ records done bythe Ward, Egloff and Goddard group in 1988. But still many remainedunidentified and there were clearly stories yet to be told about why eachgrave had been positioned in particular relationships to others. We talkedwith members of all of the family groups who remained living in the town.Where Isabel felt people wouldn’t be comfortable talking with her around,she quietly drifted off somewhere else while I talked with them. Where agrave’s identity was still not clear, we worked out who would have dug thegrave, and visited or phoned them, talking over the location and thecircumstances of the burial until we were confident we knew who wasburied where.

As we went about identifying more and more of the burials, the patternsin the cemetery became clearer. As Isabel’s brother Joe had pointed out, themain principle was that you would be ‘buried with your mob’. So the rela-tionship of graves told not simply about the immediate family relationships

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 236

Page 255: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

of parents and children and grandparents, which would be apparent towestern families, but about second cousins, and even more widely extendedfamily, and finally about the bonds of a traditional kinship which still tiespeople to each other in this community. The desire to bury babies close toprotective grandparents or older family members is clear in the cemetery,showing in the small knots of tragedy and hope as tiny graves are clusteredaround an adult grave here and there.

There have been troublesome confusions about the identities of peopleburied in some graves, and these have tended to be those of people with fewfamily in the town, perhaps a woman who married in from another commu-nity, but who left no children in the town to mark and remember hergravesite. Confident memories about grave identities depend on continuingstrong and attentive families, who could look after the sites, but also keeptheir memory alive among the broader community. The graves of people whohad only been in the town a short time, travellers or occasionally single menwho had settled in the town later in life, tended to be clustered towards thenorth-eastern corner of the cemetery, just above the more easterly sectionwhere the Flick family had buried their dead.

As we worked, it became clear that Isabel had been thinking about thesepatterns for a long time. She had spent a great deal of her life protecting thecemetery and she had a deep respect for the community’s continuities, whichlinked the people with their traditional past as well as more recent histories.She explained that community feeling about the cemetery in this way: ‘We’reproud of the fact that we continue to bury in a tribal site. And we have a lotof traditional feelings, and it’s a strong bond in the community.’

Yet she didn’t see tradition as rigid or unchangeable. Isabel had a confi-dence which allowed her to see tradition in a dynamic relationship with thepeople of the present and the future. Her decision about where to be buried,in a plot some distance from her own family’s graves, showed her thinking:

Isabel: Well, this northern side’s not been used much. And I noticed thatnearly all the people buried on this north-eastern side are people fromother towns and I always feel strongly that there shouldn’t be anystrangers’ portion. Not that people said that’s a strangers’ portion. Butthat’s how it appears to me. And I feel that this position that myself andTed Thorne’s chosen is a special section in this cemetery yard. And Iknow that some of the older people living today disagree. I wanted to tryand clear it up before it happened, so I mentioned it to a couple of theolder people. They don’t feel that I should be buried over there, so faraway from my family portion. However, I think we all have a freedom ofchoosing these particular sections. And my family know that’s where I’ll

A Wider Focus


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 237

Page 256: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

be buried. And so that’s why it’s a special section for me. And I hope itovercomes the feeling that the northern side is a strangers’ side.

The rich stories of the cemetery unfolded in our peaceful days there. Some ofthem were about tragic or violent deaths, but many were about the eventfullives of the people buried there. They were stories about relationships, lovesand losses, jealousies, separations and reunions, eccentricities and ‘charac-ters’, about work and travels and adventures along the way. Isabel felt thatthese stories of life were at the heart of the cemetery’s powerful value in thecommunity. Something was needed which would tell those stories of rich andcolourful lives, not just the stories about deaths. So she began to plan for a‘heritage walk’ along the roadway approaching the cemetery, with perhapsgranite stone blocks along the path, engraved with brief biographies, glimpseswhich would celebrate the lives of the Murris buried in the cemetery.

Isabel’s interest in celebrating lives wasn’t limited to those of people whohad already died. The Toomelah filming was proving to be an enjoyableexperience for Isabel and her sister Rose. They were not only rememberingtheir own pasts, but were learning a great deal about how other women hadseen the experiences they had shared. On top of that they were contributingto the regeneration of Gamilaraay language as the older people were findinghow much more they could remember when they were talking together than

Isabel Flick


Working day in the Aboriginal cemetery, 1999, Collarenebri. Members of the Weatherallfamily, standing, and Rose (Flick) Fernando and Doreen (Weatherall) Hynch, seatedon right.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 238

Page 257: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

when they tried to recall vocabulary on their own. The process of combingover the Collarenebri cemetery to identify the graves had been work largelyundertaken by women and as Isabel worked with them the possibilities ofhaving a day to celebrate their lives and the lives of their older survivingmothers and aunties began to take shape.

Isabel particularly wanted to celebrate the work of women like NannaPearlie Mason, the midwife who had delivered so many babies for Murriwomen, including Brenda on the Block in the difficult days of 1956. Womenlike her sister-in-law Rosie Flick who had been the first and only teacher formany Murri kids when she ran the bough shade school on the Old Camp.And of course women like Bessie Khan, whose red high-heeled shoes hadinspired a generation of young girls on the Camp. Isabel and her sister Rosewere planning to give those great women a picnic and a day out, perhaps atthe Old Camp or at other places they knew from their youth and childhood,to show them how much they were appreciated and to allow them thepleasure of sharing their memories with each other and the younger membersof the community.

In all of this, Isabel hadn’t forgotten the men of the community either,or the particular piece of unfinished business which concerned them. TheCollymongle trees still weighed on her conscience. The $25 000 grant forresearch and restoration of the trees was still inaccessible, but using herTranby resources, Isabel began to track down the locations of the Collymon-gle trees in cities like Adelaide and Brisbane and to trace rumours she hadbeen hearing about a travelling exhibition of the trees which she feared wasgoing to have these objects, which should have been restricted to men’s view,shown publicly. Ted Thorne and Isabel’s brother, Joe, and his son Joey,joined her in a set of letters to the various museums involved and to theAustralia Council, believed to be funding the exhibition, to express theirconcerns.

The proposed exhibition was indeed in the planning stages, but therepresentations Isabel, Joe, Ted and Joey made were able to restrain theprocess until the plans were shelved. Yet this was hardly a satisfactoryoutcome for the Collarenebri community, who were still hoping, howeveruneasily, to be able to bring all the trees home. This needed a keeping place,where they could be housed in reasonable atmospheric conditions and safetyfrom vandals, as well as fulfilling community desires about restricted access.So Isabel and Joe reactivated the discussion about keeping places and beganexploring the possibilities for funds.

All this travelling often separated Isabel and Ted, but his constantsupport sustained her. ‘A couple of times over the years I’ve said: ‘‘Oh buggerthis. I’ve had enough of the politics and the travelling . . .’’ Well, two years

A Wider Focus


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 239

Page 258: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

ago I said I was finished. I had given up. But Ted said, ‘‘No, I don’t reckon youshould give up. I’d be very disappointed if you stopped doing this and youstopped doing that.’’ ’

Isabel was working in many ways to heal the tears in her family’s fabricin the mid-1990s. Her work in the cemetery and with the Collymongle treesreflected the continuation of her father’s commitments, but it was the linkswith her Queensland family she was renewing by travelling across the borderto get to know her mother’s relations and by trying to bring her baby sister’sbody back across that same border to be properly buried with her family inCollarenebri. Isabel was acknowledging and exploring her relationship withthe people and lands on the Queensland side of the border in a way that shehad seldom done before. So it is ironic that the language and legalities of landrights politics were shifting at just this time in ways which turned herQueensland affiliations into an accusation to challenge her role in com-munity politics in New South Wales.

The Mabo case before the High Court established in 1991 that indige-nous people did hold common law property rights before the invasion andthat in some circumstances this ‘Native Title’ might continue after colonisa-tion. In 1993, the Keating Labor Government passed national legislationacknowledging Native Title and allowing Aborigines to claim what remainedof their Native Title rights if they could prove their connection to the landand so their status as ‘traditional owners’. The nature of this ‘connection’ wasnot defined by the legislation, and prior to the invasion, Aboriginal people’sownership of land appears to have been a complex interaction of theirbiological and cultural inheritance—from both their biological family, theirwider kin and from the places where they were born—in combination withthe degree to which they actually took up these obligations and responsibili-ties in later life. So no one could just passively, biologically ‘inherit’ownership of places.

But in the ensuing Native Title court cases, the working definition of‘traditional owner’ has become ever more narrowly defined as the biologicaldescent from an ancestor who can be demonstrated to have lived on that landat a very early stage of colonial settlement. The evidence for such claims hasnarrowed, too, until it is really only European documentation, like earlyration lists, which will be accepted as ‘proving’ such descent. So memory andoral tradition—for millenia the central modes of transmission of Aboriginalculture—are now relegated to secondary supporting evidence, and are oftendismissed altogether.

It took a few years for this definition of ‘traditional owner’ to begin circu-lating in Aboriginal circles, and some time too before claims were lodged inNew South Wales, because alienation of land in that state by freehold or lease

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 240

Page 259: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

had been so widespread as to call into question any persistence of Native Titleat all. But suddenly in 1997 there were several contentious situations forCollarenebri Murris to face, in which the definition of who was and who wasnot a ‘traditional owner’ was crucial. The first one was an extensive NativeTitle claim, the Euhalayi case, filed on behalf of members of the Dixon familyfrom Angledool, to a wide area north of the Barwon river, from west ofGoodooga to east of Collarenebri, including the Aboriginal cemetery.

This claim alarmed many white residents in the area, from the opalminers at Lightning Ridge to graziers, who misunderstood the nature ofNative Title and thought they would lose their property. But it also alarmedAboriginal people, from the State Land Council Aboriginal managers of thegrazing properties in the claim area to the Collarenebri community, becauseit included their cemetery. As the claim was made for one family only, itseemed to be a disrespectful challenge to the wider community’s sense ofownership of their family graves, on land only newly won back into commu-nity hands. Non-Aboriginal graziers in the area disputed the claim on thebasis that western lands leases extinguished all Native Title, and in mid-2002this was accepted by the High Court, taking most of the power out ofthe claim.

But in the five or six years after it was first lodged, this claim generatedintense feelings on all sides, and set off a flurry of conflicts among Aboriginalpeople as they tried to determine who had the ‘traditional’ right to demandto be included in the claimant group. While most Aborigines have been longadvocates of recognition of their rights to their land, the original Euhalayiclaim was universally criticised by the region’s Murris as being a singlefamily’s grab for resources which were rightly due to the whole Aboriginalcommunity. But because of the language of the claim and the legal demandthat you had to be a ‘traditional owner’ in order to participate or to challengeit, Murris were forced to define themselves in a way that suited the whitecourts rather than a way which arose from their long established history andfeelings about what was right and true about their communities. And becausedocuments were the only acceptable evidence for ‘claimant’ status before thecourt, Murris were being forced to search for scarce birth certificates or schoolrolls or wages books instead of seeking advice from their old people aboutwho really belonged to which part of the country.

The differences in the way ‘Native Title’ was defined by the courts andthe ways in which community membership and leadership were understoodon the ground were deep and often unbridgeable chasms. Isabel, forexample, was someone whose whole approach to political organising wasinclusive. She had managed each consultative process in which she wasinvolved by ensuring that everyone, even the people she couldn’t speak to,

A Wider Focus


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 241

Page 260: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

would nevertheless by able to have their say. Her interventions in thehousing lists had always been to try to achieve a fair distribution to all themembers of the community, not just to one family, but including the mostdisadvantaged and those least likely to have their voices heard. Anapproach to defining rights in ‘Native Title’ according to a hierarchy amongthe longest standing families in the community, by validating those whoseancestry could be confirmed by white documentation and invalidatingthose who could not, was in direct contradiction to the central principleson which Isabel had always operated.

Not only did this approach conflict with her fundamental commitments,but it challenged her own standing, because there was little documentationabout Mick’s early life. With Celia’s family well known to be from Queens-land, and Mick bringing Celia back from over the border when they married,there was a persistent impression that Mick too was from Queensland. Isabelherself had been born in Goondawindi, and only the youngest members ofthe family could claim Collarenebri as a birthplace. The implication was thatIsabel was somehow claiming to be a custodian of a place to which she hadno links. She was hurt by the hint of interrogation in the voices of some oldfriends when they now asked, ‘ . . . And where were you born Isabel?’

Just as Isabel began to talk with Collarenebri people about how theywould respond to the Euhalayai land claim over the cemetery, another evenmore explicit challenge to her standing arose. The Indigenous Land Corpor-ation (ILC) had been established by the Federal Government in parallel withthe Native Title Act to provide funds for purchasing land in recognition ofthe limited possibilities of succeeding with Native Title claims. The ILCcould purchase land on the application of community organisations, and itspractice was then to separate the land title holding body—to be made up ofthe traditional owners—from the management body, which would be madeup of different local people, who would manage day-to-day in the interests ofthe traditional owner title holders. The ideal situation was that the titleholding body and the management body would be established before theapplication for land purchase was made to the ILC, but in many cases this didnot happen.

In Collarenebri, a company formed by an individual family—in whichthe husband was a white man and his wife an Aboriginal woman fromWalgett—applied for the ILC to purchase a property called Eurool, just a fewkilometres out of Collarenebri. This family’s arrival had already stirred alarmbecause the husband had recently been convicted of a number of very seriousoffences in Walgett. Their application to the ILC had listed many people asthe interested community members and likely traditional owners, but they allcame from Walgett. The ILC had agreed to the application and purchased

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 242

Page 261: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

the property without any consultation with any members of the Collarenebricommunity. The director of the ILC reported that their officer had travelledthrough Collarenebri, but had not been able to find any Aboriginal people toconsult! Almost everything about this situation distressed CollarenebriMurris, but a basic frustration was that, after years of the State Land Councilfailing to deliver a nearby piece of land which could be used for community,cultural as well as economic purposes, the ILC had now agreed to turn thispiece of land just up the road over to a newly arrived family, to the exclusionof any of the people who had actually lived in Collarenebri over manydecades and had links to the earliest traditional owners.

This was a period when the ILC was under heavy public criticism fora number of examples of poor judgement and practice, some far worse thanthe Eurool problem. So, having already purchased the land at Collarenebri,the ILC was eager to try to resolve the dispute. Consultant anthropologistswere engaged to clarify just who should be regarded as the traditional ownersof Eurool, and how the title holders’ body should be constituted.3 The troubleis that no one knows what the traditional patterns of land holding were likein detail in this area, because of the severe disorganisation caused by theinvasion violence and then the waves of epidemic illness which swept acrossthe plains. The families who had been in Collarenebri township for thelongest time, like the Mundys and the Murrays, were acknowledged. Butothers—like the Flicks and the Thornes who had lived on stations when thepresent eldest generation was young before moving to town in the early1930s—or like the Weatheralls, who had moved across when Angledool wasshifted in 1936, were made to feel insecure and intimidated, not so much bythe consultants, as by the process of prying and questioning into births,deaths and parentage. The inquiry severely polarised the Walgett claimantfamilies from the Collarenebri groups who were left feeling marginalised anddisrespected. The fact was that first Mick and then Isabel had wrapped theirlives around Collarenebri, knowing that of all the places from which theirfamilies arose, their link to Collarenebri was the fundamental one for them.But their histories of commitment and sacrifice to speak up for the place andits people seemed irrelevant to the search for a ‘pristine’ traditional owner!

All of the Flick family were involved in the long meetings and consulta-tions to try and sort out the intractable mess which the ILC purchase hadcaused. Rose remembers that she and Joe both became less articulate as theybecame more angry and more offended. But she describes Isabel as becomingcooler and more focused under pressure. At these ILC meetings, Isabel wouldstraighten in her chair, her elbows resting on the table and her long, elegantfingertips meeting in front of her in icy calm as she penetrated to the focalissues and relentlessly drove home her arguments:

A Wider Focus


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 243

Page 262: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Rose: I remember seeing her angry. That was over that Eurool thing. Oh,you’ve never seen a face like that. I’d seen her face when she was worried.I saw her face when she’d come back from some of them other meetingsand threw her papers on the table and she’d say, ‘Yes this so-and-so’s thisand this so-and-so’s that!’ or, ‘This black bastard this and this whitebastard that’. I saw that face! But when those people come along a coupleof days later and said, ‘I’m sorry about what happened down there at thatmeeting’. She’d say, ‘Oh are you? Well come here I want to talk to youabout that!’ Different look, see. ‘So come here . . .’ and she’d shut thedoor and talk it out with them, see?

But when Eurool come up, this was an anger that was different! Itshowed right through her body. Not a give-up type of anger, but angerthat said, ‘I’m gonna see this through, you know! I’m determined aboutthis here!’ You see every document that come back about Eurool, it hadcriticism of the Flicks. ‘The Flicks are doing all the talking. The Flicksare doing all the bargaining!’ And every time Isabel read it she said, ‘Thisis not about Flicks, this is about Mundys, Murrays and Combos gettingwhat they deserved. We always lived on the bank of the river. We’reright! But this is about these blackfellas’.

At the next meeting, Isabel took her stand.

Rose: The ILC had their lawyer there, and their director was standingthere. I remember sitting at this table, Isabel’s legs were astride like thisand her two hands up like that on the table. And she said: ‘This is notabout Flicks! This is about Mundys and Murrays and Combos. Therethey are there, sitting right there and we Flicks are going to shut ourmouths and see what you get out of them!’ But all those people said, ‘Noyou talk for us Sis, you talk for us Aunt! We got nothing to say, Aunty Istalks for us!’

And that’s how it was! They just keep passing it back to Aunty Is,‘Aunty Is will do it!’ And she said, ‘No, they want you fellas to talk. I’llread you what they say about us!’ And she read it to them. And they wassaying, ‘Well, they can go and get fucked!’ They was going on real wild!And they said it again: ‘Aunty Is’ll talk for us!’

The Eurool problem remains unresolved, but it seems to have become clearto the ILC that the original purchase and management plan was neithermeaningful nor principled. The applicant family has since moved away, andthe ILC is reconsidering the future of its purchase.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 244

Page 263: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

The ‘traditional owner research’ process was bruising for the Flicks and forthe Thornes, and for other families who felt their long histories in thecommunity and their commitment to their country hadn’t been well repre-sented. It got Isabel thinking about how much her life had been entangledwith places—places where she had been taught about her past and herpeople; some places she loved and other places which had taught her hardlessons; some where she felt close to her people and to the spirit of hercountry, and many where she had shared the rich events of her life.

At around this time, Kevin Cook was approached by the Union ofAustralian Women to suggest an Aboriginal woman whom the UAW couldsupport to tell her life story. Isabel had not often paused to think about tellingher own story before this, but Kevin raised it with her at just the time shewas reflecting on how her life had been shaped by places and people. She wasinterested in teasing out answers to the questions of her past. So with someamusement she agreed to have a go at telling this life story of hers. She askedme to help, having already recruited me for her continuing work at thecemetery.

So we started out, not really sure how we were going to do it, but thinkingthat recording her memories was a good beginning. Isabel recorded a series oftapes during 1997 and 1998, when she was making fairly frequent trips toSydney. These sessions were directed first by the questions I asked her, butincreasingly Isabel took over the interviews, directing them towards themesshe was composing her memories around, like her continuing experience of

A Wider Focus


Isabel and Heather at Tranby Collegeduring the launch of Isabel’s researchproject to write her life story.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 245

Page 264: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

confrontation and the lessons she drew from it. She was less interested than Iwas in her recent accomplishments. Instead she wanted to dredge hermemories for her earliest glimpses of her mother’s relations and the childhoodshe remembered in Collarenebri. She wanted to find answers there to her ownquestions about why her life had taken the course that it had. One thing shewas looking for was a model of the community life she remembered to havebeen so strengthening for her, the warm security which had made her feel thatshe ‘owned the world’. She was looking for a way to convey that feeling andto explain to the Murris of today the way communities in the past had createdthat sense of security.

Pretty soon, Isabel decided that the way she wanted to tell her story wasto be in Collarenebri when she was recording. She wanted to be with theother people with whom she had shared her past so that they could talk overtheir memories, confirming or comparing. And just as importantly, shewanted to be at the places where the key events of all their lives had takenplace as she told the stories about what had happened. The cemetery workwas well underway then, so we worked on the two projects together, richlyentangled as these stories were. These trips were journeys along the pathwaysof Isabel’s life and, as we went, Isabel anchored each of her stories into thevery ground she was talking about.

So we travelled the story of her life, visiting all sorts of places aroundCollarenebri, making a new geography visible, following the tracks thatIsabel had walked as a kid, the places she was allowed into and the places

Isabel Flick


Isabel in 1999 outside the verandah of the Colle Manse where she had learnt tocount in 1938.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 246

Page 265: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

where she was not. Isabel wanted to stop at each place and talk it over withher old friends and family, to ask Rosie Weatherall Flick what she remem-bered about the bough shade school, to talk to Ted Thorne about the dayslearning to count the pebbles on the Manse verandah, having her sistersClara and Rose remember the annex school, and to have Doreen talk aboutthe colour bar at the Liberty Picture show, and the ‘Seg Ward’ at the hospital,and about carrying water up the steep bank to the Old Camp. Some of theseplaces marked out starkly the lines of conflict and confrontation. Otherscarried the rich detail of long remembered childhoods.

One of the best days was one with lots of people, adults and kids, at theriver below the Old Camp. The very elderly and frail Auntie Bessie Khan wasable to come down with her carers, and listened while people rememberedher when she was a gorgeous young woman there in her elegant flash clothesand her red high-heeled shoes. In breathless, whispered snatches, Bessiebegan to recall the people and relations of the old days, stories about heryounger brothers and sisters, of who was related to whom, about how MickFlick had been brought up by Granny Fanny, about the layout of the OldCamp, and the trips into town on her horse, Creamy. And she laughedoutright as Isabel and Rosie described how the heels on those flash red shoesmust have been at least five inches high!

A Wider Focus


Day on the river bank at the Old Camp with Auntie Bessie Khan during Isabel’s research,1999.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 247

Page 266: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Isabel’s book was the reason that these trips got started. They kept onhappening because they were rich and enjoyable days, looked forward to byeveryone for the bitter-sweet pleasure of sharing memories and for the chanceto show the children there the places where their parents and grandparentshad grown up. Many of these places were ones which Isabel had mentionedin her earlier recorded interviews in Sydney, but the stories came alive whenshe told them to and with her old friends and family around. They allcontributed, adding, contradicting, correcting until they were happy that thestories reflected some part of the memories they had carried all their lives.

And the memories her sisters and old friends had of Isabel filled out someof the gaps she had left in her own story. As Rose reflected: ‘You see, I loveall the politics. And I got a deep respect for all the people who give her allthe credit for all the things she done, which is true, like those people said,‘‘Aunty Is’ll talk for us’’. But I’m glad I got my pocket, on the side, of funni-ness, of silliness! Stupidness! I’m glad I got that!’

Isabel Flick


Isabel, Rose, Rosie and Doreen, sharing memories and arguing the point on the riverbankat the Old Camp.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 248

Page 267: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

12 The Dipping Place

There was one place that Isabel had talked about again and again on her tapes,returning to it as she puzzled over its meaning for her then and now. She notonly talked about this place, but she began to draw it, sitting in on an art classat Tranby so she could try and paint her vision. This was the dipping place,where the Old Camp families had drawn their drinking water from theBarwon. She wasn’t satisfied with her painting, catching the ‘knottly’ roots,but unsure about the number of trees on the bank. Then as we talked aboutpictures she might have in her book, one kept coming to her mind, a beauti-ful portrait of her taken by Penny Tweedie for a story about land rights in theearly 1980s. When she found it, it was clear why. On Isabel’s suggestion backin 1981, this photo had been taken beside the dipping place itself.

The picture shows Isabel sitting on the bank, the solid rise of it behindher, with her feet immersed in the river and her hand trailing ripples as theBarwon flowed past her. Even at a glimpse, the picture shows the contrastingthemes of Isabel’s life: the steadfastness and stability of the rocks at the bankand the transience of the continuing flow of the river. The way Isabel, likethe bank, had been a steadfast anchor for everyone else in her life, a solidrock for all of us to steady ourselves on and from which to push ourselves off.And the way she had recreated her life so many times, as fresh and mercurialas the river water’s flow.

The ironies of the photo are right too. Isabel knew well the way the blacksoil bank would dissolve in floods until it flowed away itself. And she hadseen the flowing river dry into stagnant puddles in drought. Just the same way


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 249

Page 268: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

as what was solid and what was transient in her own ‘many lives’ was alwaysunpredictable, and never what it seemed to be.

But there was a deeper meaning to the dipping place which was the oneIsabel was searching to express in her tapes and her painting, perhaps in herdecision to be photographed there. Certainly she sought this meaning in thedays sitting by the banks with her mob. It was the dipping place that Isabelreally wanted to talk over with everyone else at the Old Camp site, to see iftheir memories coincided with her own, to stand right there beside it againwhile she talked about what it meant to her, about what it was she wantedthat place to say to young people. These were her words in 1999 as she lookedacross at the dipping place and reflected on what it meant:

Isabel: We had this special place we called our dipping place. It wasspecial because it was about the law. We’d all come down here and twoor three different lots of people would be making the fire and settingtheir boilers up so they can boil the clothes . . . But there was only thisone place where you could dip for the water that you take home to drink.Now, I’ll never know how they made sure that the dipping place was notto be for just anything. But it was just for taking the water up home, forour cooking and drinking. Now you see the place you’ll know what

Isabel Flick


Isabel at the Dipping Place, photographed by Penny Tweedie, 1981, and published in theNational Times (578:20 & 29) 28 February to 6 March 1982. (AIATSIS N3061.10.Reproduced with permission from Penny Tweedie and AIATSIS.)

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 250

Page 269: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

I mean. Just a bit further on, not far, be about 20 steps I suppose, waswhere we could go and fish. You could chuck your line in and do whatyou like there, but you wouldn’t dare put a line in here. And nobodybroke that rule, you know?

Then on the other side of that there was a place where the kids usedto be able to swim, and there was a little bit further over, that’s where allthe grown ups would swim. So there even was two separate swimmingplaces . . . And see, the older ones could swim there, but we used to swimin the rocky part. And they couldn’t swim here see. That was the goodpart of it, they respected the law. That was a good community time forpeople there. And that’s what I wanted to make sure was recognised asthe special place for me.

The dipping place for Isabel had become a symbol of the order and respect atwork within a traditional community. Its laws were invisible to outsiders, butshe saw them acted out in her memories of all those people living closetogether in what appeared on the surface to be casual, disorderly lives, butwho were in fact interacting, with each other and with their country, in regu-lated, disciplined ways arising from mutual respect and protective care. Thismeaning for the place had been growing in Isabel for years, but she wanted tobe there and talk it over, especially with older people like Auntie Bessie, to besure it was a meaning shared by her mob. As she said while we were packingup after the day at the Old Camp:

So I think we’ve got to get all that down about how important this hereis. Old Auntie Bea remembers the old dipping place. She recognised it.So now I just need to keep confirming things with those older people andI’ll be right. Funny how those things become important for what you’reon about, eh? I’ve got some real ties with this place. Being here on theactual spot clarified a lot of stuff for me. And then with Auntie Bea here.She knows what she’s on about. She recognised this place. So yeah . . .I’m pleased I’ve got this clear now.

Isabel’s days were very full during 1999, as she drove herself on to fulfil themany ideas and plans she felt she had. The family had been touched by tragedyyet again in February, when Amy’s daughter’s newborn child, Jackahl, died afteronly five days. Isabel helped Amy and Georgette to cope with their loss andthen as she had learnt to do when she was grieving—she worked all the harder.

Whenever I spoke with her she was planning, delegating, suggesting newways to work or new people to talk with, encouraging me and everyone else tograsp the hard jobs and get them done for her. She seemed to be everywhere.

The Dipping Place


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 251

Page 270: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

When she wasn’t at Gunnedah with Ted and contributing to the LandCouncil there, she might be at Collarenebri at the cemetery or at Toomelahfilming at the old mission site or at Walgett or Brewarrina visiting old friends.

Isabel often expressed her sense of inadequacy when she recorded storiesof how her father Mick had enriched his grandchildren’s lives in his latteryears. She felt she had not been able to give her children and grandchildrenthe time she would have liked to be able to do. But she nevertheless kept intouch with everyone, and one of her great joys was that Ben was aroundmore, visiting her and Ted in Gunnedah and travelling more to see hisbrothers and sisters than he had been able in earlier years. He was one of themotivating forces for her in recording her memories:

Isabel: I didn’t realise that it was important for me to do that until my sonBen came down from Bathurst for a Friends of Tranby dinner. And hesaid: ‘Gee, Mum I didn’t know you were doing this or into that . . .’I thought: No, I don’t think they would know because I don’t have timeto sit down and tell them. But I think a lot of those things have becomeso important to me that I must get this down so that at least my grand-kids will know something about me too.

Isabel was in Sydney often, where she could be found in the office at Tranbydictating letters about the Collymongle trees or visiting Yasmah Children’s

Isabel Flick


Isabel and Ben at the Friends of Tranby dinner, 1997.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 252

Page 271: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Detention Centre, trying to work out how to help young girls caught up in thejuvenile justice system, or counselling young Murri kids at St Scholastica Highin Glebe about how to develop ‘reconciliation’ activities. She seemed to me attimes to be tiring. She had missed one filming session at Toomelah because shesimply did not feel well enough to make the trip. So the last shoot was aspecial one for her as she made that focused effort to be there, and had beenrewarded with the welcome finding of her sister’s grave. But if she seemedmore tired, her planning never stopped and she had half a dozen projects infull flight in November when she received dreadful news.

Ben had had a massive stroke and was being rushed from Bathurst toSydney with fears for his life. Isabel came to Sydney immediately, with Brendaand Amy, and they haunted Westmead Hospital to spend as much time asthey could with Ben. He seemed stronger at first, with periods of conscious-ness, and they were there in time to talk with him. But his periods ofwakefulness became more rare, and it was soon clear that he was slippingaway.

Distraught as she was, Isabel suddenly found she could not ignore the factthat she was feeling weak and extremely unwell. Putting it down to a reactionto her fears about Ben, she reluctantly agreed to take time away from him toallow Paulie to examine her. The X-rays showed an ominous shadow on herlungs, and the diagnosis was the grim one of inoperable lung cancer. Isabelwas so focused on her eldest son she barely considered what was happeningto her, but her family galvanised as they tried to cope with this second shock.

Brenda and Amy cared for her in Sydney as she went through the onlyform of chemotherapy which offered a possibility of slowing the disease. Tonytravelled to be with her and to talk with Paulie about how her illness mightdevelop, and Larry and Aubie were in constant touch. Ben died on Christ-mas Day, after a long period of unconsciousness. Isabel made an heroic effortto fight her illness so she could be at his funeral, flanked by her children, asTony gave a eulogy, talking of how Ben had been a role model for his youngerbrothers and sisters.

Then her children took Isabel back to Gunnedah, hoping she would berestored to a fairly normal life at least for a while, but grief had finally over-taken her. Unable to eat, she clearly needed to come back to Sydney andTony drove her down non-stop in mid-January. Paul organised a bed for herin the Prince Alfred, so he could supervise every step of her care. Brenda washer constant nurse, joined over the coming weeks by Amy and by theirdaughters, Bernadette, Isabella and Georgette. Ted Thorne was always there,in the ward or downstairs on a seat under the huge trees in the grounds.

There were bright spots. Larry and Jedda held a formal engagementceremony at her bedside, promising her that after all these years together they

The Dipping Place


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 253

Page 272: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

would marry on Isabel’s next birthday. One of the nursing sisters joked withIsabel about how boring Paul Torzillo’s trademark red ties were, and Isabelstaunchly defended her doctor’s taste, promptly sending her girls out to buyhim a new red tie so she could give it to him herself.

Her daughters cared for her while a constant stream of visitors came,with stories and news, memories and jokes to try to cheer her up, and fruitand ice to coax her to eat. Tony, Larry and Auby were all there, with Isabelin the ward or with Ted out under the trees. Each of us were there to saygoodbye, but it was often too hard to put words to it. Barbara, Karen and Joeycame with Joe and Isobelle. Clare and Rose each sat with their sister in turn.Doreen and Rosie were in touch by phone. Eventually the visitors were tootiring for her, but Isabel made a point of asking for particular people to whomshe wanted to talk, her final handing over. She talked to those close friends,like Judy Chester, and by phone to Cookie. She talked to me about how tofinish her book. She talked to Karen and Barbara about the work they hadshared and what she wanted them to do next. She talked with each of herchildren and grandchildren about their tasks for the future and her hopes forthem all. Peaceful at last and with Ted and all her family around her, sheslipped away on 16 February 2002.

Isabel was buried in the February heat in Collarenebri, in just the placeshe had chosen, in the shade of two small trees and just a little beyond thestrangers’ portion. Her sons and Ted managed the ceremony there as she had

Isabel Flick


Doreen Hynch, Linda Hall and Josie Thorne, with Collarenebri children, open the sealedroad from Collarenebri to the Aboriginal cemetery, November 2002.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 254

Page 273: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

wanted them to do and her grave was heaped high with flowers. Isabelhad arranged for all her papers and photographs to be carefully kept, but shehad left other instructions about her most personal possessions.

In the afternoon of her burial, as she had wanted, her children handedover all her clothes and personal things to her sisters and nieces. Rose, Clara,Barbara and Karen took them up to the Block and prepared a fire. They hadasked Paul and I to come too, and we held Karen’s baby and helped in turns.One by one, each of Isabel’s things was burnt, slowly at first, then faster as thefire blazed more and more fiercely. It was intensely painful to handle each ofthose things which had been so closely identified with her, but there was alsoa release as each disappeared into the flames and rising smoke.

Exhausted, but elated too, feeling this had all been done properly, wecame back into town. Our family had to leave to fly back to Sydney, butKaren, Barbara, their mother Isobelle and Rose and Clara went back tothe cemetery at dusk. They joined Isabel’s children in straightening flowersand sweeping the ground around the new grave, spending some time yarningtogether in the quiet.

The heat had gone out of the day, and it was clear and still. FinallyBarbara and her mother began to leave, driving reluctantly away from thecemetery towards the gate. Not far along, they were startled to see a largegoanna, walking slowly across the road. Goannas are seldom seen in thiscountry and if they are sighted, they are always gone instantly with a lash of

The Dipping Place


‘Bell’s Way’: The sealed road to the cemetary was named after Isabel. Here Larry, Amy,Georgette and her daughter Tjanara stand beneath the sign at the opening in 2002.

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 255

Page 274: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

their tail. This one wasn’t in a hurry. It continued its stately walk across theroad, staring back at them calmly as the twilight gathered around them.Barbara asked her mother what kind of goanna it was. ‘That’s a Mangankali’,Isobelle told her quietly. ‘That’s from your Auntie Is, telling us that everythingis all right’.

Then it slowly climbed a tree beside the gate, hanging suspended half wayup the trunk. They edged the car past it, expecting it to disappear, but it stayed,only turning its head to follow them with its eyes. And the Mangankali was stillthere when they looked back as they rounded the last bend and headedfor town.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 256

Page 275: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman


Introduction: Making Trouble1 Murri: an Aboriginal person, ‘one of our people’. A widely used word in northern

New South Wales and Queensland arising from indigenous languages. Plural is‘Murris’. Gamilaraay was Isabel’s father’s language, and its people come from thecountry around Collarenebri and to the east and north. Yuwalaraay is closelyrelated and its people’s country is the land just to the west of Collarenebri.

Chapter 1 ‘Owning the World’1 ‘The Rules’ is a widely used term in Aboriginal English, referring to the

ceremonies to initiate boys into manhood, which is usually carried out in earlyadolescence.

2 A Queensland Government-run ‘station’ or settlement, usually called a ‘mission’,although not under the direct control of the churches. Other missions werechurch run, but all of the New South Wales missions and some of the Queens-land missions were actually government institutions. One in particular—PalmIsland—became a notorious prison for people who challenged the repressiveconditions of the ‘Queensland Act’.

3 Isabel’s early memories of her father’s attitude reflect the anxiety felt by north-west Murris during the middle 1930s when, in an effect of the Depression, theNSW Aborigines Protection Board gained new powers to take more control overAboriginal people’s residence and movement. From 1932, a marked increase inProtection Board officers’ activity could be felt on the ground. Many com-munities were forcibly moved in the northwestern areas to be concentratedat Brewarrina and later Toomelah government stations in the northwest and atMenindee in the far west. More aggressive government and police interventionoccurred in many areas, and some communities—like those at Moree andCollarenebri—although not eventually moved, were nevertheless threatenedwith wholesale removal or with the removal of their children.

4 Other families, like the Adams, who were associated with Collarenebri for many


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 257

Page 276: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

years were often camped on nearby pastoral properties, like Collymongle, whilethe Kennedy family lived in town.

5 Billy Hardy was brother to Bob Hardy, a family whose traditional countryextended from Dungalear to Bangate. Both brothers worked on these and otherpastoral properties around the immediate vicinity of Collarenebri.

6 The Weatherall family came from Angledool as a result of the deeply unpopularenforced removal of the Aboriginal population on the government station thereto Brewarrina by the Aborigines Protection Board. Ned Weatherall and his wife,Eadie (née Hardy) brought their daughters, Rose and Doreen, and son, Aubrey.

7 Porcupine: this American term is widely used by northwestern Aborigines in pref-erence to the Australian term ‘echidna’. ‘Porcupine’ may seem closer to theGamilaraay name for this animal: pikipila.

8 Pearl Parker was aunty to Eadie Weatherall and great aunt to Doreen, Rosie andAub Weatherall. She was married into the Mason family.

9 This game had many variations and many names, but by one or another it is recalledby Aborigines across the state. It involved flipping stones with wooden pegs.

10 This was recorded down on the river 18 June 1999.11 Rose Weatherall Flick (born 1924) was recorded as she told this story to Isabel

at the Old Camp in 1999, and also in an interview with them both conducted bytheir niece, Karen Flick, at Thallon in 1995. The following account is an editedtranscript drawn from both recordings. Rose is a member of the Weatherallfamily, daughter to Ned and Eadie, sister to Doreen Hynch and Aubrey Weather-all, and widow of Isabel’s oldest brother, Lindsay. She was born in 1924 andarrived at Colle with her family in 1936 from Angledool in their escape from theAborigines Protection Board move to Brewarrina.

12 Muni: headlice.

Chapter 2 Toomelah Mission1 The Tingha community was one of the victims of the Aborigines Protection

Board’s forced migration program in the late 1930s, as the Board tried to ration-alise infrastructure and reduce its expenditure by ‘concentrating’ scattered butcoherent Aboriginal communities onto centralised missions, forcing them intooften uncomfortably close proximity to unfamiliar country and communities. Theuneasiness which Isabel remembered was characteristic of the anxieties felt byAngledool and Tibooburra Aboriginal residents when shifted to Brewarrina andthe even deeper alarm of the Carowra Tank community dumped at Menindeeduring the same period. See Goodall, Invasion to Embassy, 1996, chapter 15.

2 The Aborigines Protection Board had been forced by parental protests in 1919to allow apprenticed girls to return to their communities once their indentureswere completed. The Aborigines Protection Board managers were instructed in1920 to ensure that returned apprenticed girls were married respectably. Thisappears to have been one of the causes, as in the case Isabel remembers, forrushed and collective marriages. Mission residents, however, tend universally tosuspect managers, their sons and other white male staff of sexually exploitingyoung Aboriginal women and needing to arrange hasty marriages with localAboriginal men to cover up unwanted pregnancies.

3 The conditions of Aborigines Protection Board stations had worsened dramati-cally in the 1930s. Many Aboriginal workers were thrown out of work, but then

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 258

Page 277: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

they were refused unemployment relief and forced to move onto AboriginesProtection Board stations to get any relief at all. Numbers of residents on thestations soared and overcrowding led to severe epidemics in the late 1930s ofpneumonia, dysentry and eye disease. The children were treated for trachoma(then called sandy blight) with a harsh combination of copper sulphate (blue-stone) and iodine paint (the pink paint) applied directly to the surface of theireyes. A false accusation that Aboriginal people were suffering from some form ofgonorrheal eye disease both inflamed racial prejudice and ensured that thesepainful treatments were carried out aggressively.

4 Mentally ill, unstable.5 Throwing stick, men’s hunting weapon.6 The Salt Water song is one of the most commonly remembered songs in the area.

These are the words as Isabel remembered their pronunciation in 1980. Aversion very similar to the one Isabel remembered was recalled and recorded in1999 by Eileen [Wibble] McIntosh and Julie Whitton, who both grew up in theToomelah community in the 1930s and 1940s. Their performance of it appearsin their film about Toomelah, Inard Oongali: Women’s Journey. Isabel was notpresent on the camp at which this filming was done. A slightly different versionwas remembered by Gabriel Wallace at Narrabri and recorded in 1970 (AIATSISArchive Tape A10610). Wibble McIntosh, like Isabel, remembered that the songtold about Aboriginal people watching across the salt water as ‘that big shipcame’ bringing the first British invaders. Ada Jarrett, who was also involved inthe filming, recalled that she understood it to tell the story of Aboriginal motherslooking for their children after they had been taken away (by the ProtectionBoard). Their accounts also appear in the film.

7 A reference to the locally composed songs like those of Dougie Young fromWilcannia, usually in country and western style in the 1980s, which reflectedwestern Aboriginal lifestyles and expressed an assertive, contemporary Aborigi-nality.

8 The architecture and layout of all the Aborigines Protection Board missionsmaximised the manager’s ability to see what was going on all over the missiongrounds, into the Aboriginal huts laid out in a grid pattern and to observemovement through the gate. The wide verandahs on the manager’s home were acommon country style, but also served to allow ready surveillance. Buildings forthe white staff were more substantial than the small huts for Aboriginal resi-dents, and the staff homes and offices were clustered together, presenting anintimidating fortress effect.

9 This would date the meeting in 1940 or 1941. Ferguson and Groves made a seriesof country trips and held meetings at missions from 1938, discussing the changesthey advocated to the Aborigines Protection Board and then attacking the amend-ments the Government introduced to empower the ‘new’ Aborigines WelfareBoard, established in 1939, which was the body that introduced the ‘Dog Licence’or ‘Exemption Certificate’ in 1941. Isabel left Toomelah some time in 1942.

Chapter 3 Leaving From the Street1 J.J. Fletcher, ‘The NSW Education Department and the Education of Aboriginal

Children, 1880–1940’, The Leader, 5(3) 1973; and J.J. Fletcher, ‘Collarenebri—An Attempt to Integrate Aboriginal Children’, The Leader, 6(2) 1975:30–36.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 259

Page 278: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

2 Marie Rea, ‘Colour Prejudice at Collarenebri, NSW’, Aborigines Protector, 2(3)1947.

2 There was no imposing architecture in this small town, so the School of Arts hallwas often referred to as the ‘Town Hall’.

3 Ngarragaa: If you feel sorry for someone, they are ‘ngarragaa’.4 Waajiin: whitewoman.5 Bandu: untidy, messy.6 An Aboriginal English term used for traditional kin and affiliation. The two words

commonly used in the Collarenebri community were ‘meat’ and ‘skin’. ‘Meat’refers to one’s ‘totem’ or affiliation with a particular animal or plant, which is oneaspect influencing choice of marriage partner. ‘Skin’ refers to the four (exoga-mous) kinship ‘sections’—Mari, Gabi, Hibai and Gambo—each of which becametransformed into a surname in the various recording processes of colonisation.These surnames are common in the Aboriginal families from the area aroundCollarenebri, and are usually spelt as Murray, Cubby, Hippai and Combo.

Chapter 4 Building Pressures1 Many Aboriginal shearers and rouseabouts became deeply involved in this

factional conflict within the Australian Workers’ Union in this period.2 Collarenebri Gazette, 22/3/1939.3 Wanda: a commonly used word for white person.4 Granny Ada Woods, Isabelle Walford Flick’s grandmother.5 Lubby, who died in 1973.

Chapter 5 Confrontations1 Faith Bandler and Len Fox, The Time was Ripe, pp. 61–70. 2 Collarenebri Gazette, 3 August 1955.3 Barbara Flick wrote about these events in ‘Colonisation and Decolonisation: An

Aboriginal Experience’ in Playing the State, edited by Sophie Watson, Allen &Unwin, Sydney, 1990, p. 63.

4 Interview, 18 March 1999. 5 Report of the Aborigines Welfare Board, year ending 30 June 1961, p. 11. 6 Letter from Minister for Education, C.B. Cutler, 30 November 1966, to local

Member, G.R. Crawford, responding to the petition from Isabel, Rev. B. Marrettand Mr T. Bayty of Collymongle.

7 Harry Hall has played a major role in Aboriginal politics in Walgett and in theregion. An established activist before the Freedom Ride bus came, he introducedthe students to the Walgett Aboriginal Community and focused their actions onkey local issues.

8 The Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, a community controlled welfare andsocial organisation, a branch of the Foundation that had opened in inner-citySydney in December 1964. It had been set up by white and Aboriginal activistsand had Charles Perkins as its first project officer. Ann Curthoys, Freedom Ride,2002, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p. 21.

9 Wanda: white man, white person generally (but wajiin is more commonly used forwhite woman).

10 Peter Tobin, Report to Abschol, 1969: ‘Fringe-dwelling Rural Aborigines and theLaw’, typescript.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 260

Page 279: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

11 National Aboriginal Congress, the first attempt under the Federal LaborGovernment to establish a national forum of Aboriginal leadership.

12 See chapter 7. In 1973, the Aboriginal cotton chippers staged a strike (see WeeWaa Echo, 18/1/73; 1/2/73). A report was commissioned by the Federal Ministerfor Labour, Clyde Cameron, and printed by the Department of Labour, 1973 asReport on the Grievances of the Seasonal Workers in Wee Waa and Narrabri. Theyhad had poor assistance from the AWU, to which many belonged as pastoralworkers, because unions find organising among seasonal workers difficult and haddelayed signing up members in this new industry. The strike drew in AWU organ-isers, but as Isabel explains, the Social Welfare system which emerged in the1970s undermined the potential for union membership. Changing technologiesin the cotton industry have decreased the need for the large armies of chippersseen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although it still provides significantshort-term work, chipping is no longer the extensive social event which it was inthose years.

Chapter 6 Entangling the City with the Bush1 P. Pholeros, Rainow, S. and Torzillo, P., Housing for Health: Towards a Healthy

Living Environment for Aboriginal Australia, HealthHabitat, Sydney, 1993.2 Wee Waa Echo, 30/11/72; 7/12/72; 14/12/72; 21/12/72.3 Wee Waa Echo, 11/1/73.4 Wee Waa Echo, 11/1/73; 18/1/73; 25/1/73; 1/2/73; 8/2/73; 22/2/73.5 Wee Waa Echo, 22/2/73; 8/3/73.

Chapter 8 Changing Collarenebri1 Koorier, newsletter of the NSW Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, December 1983,

p. 4. 2 Paul Pholeros, senior architect, HealthHabitat, Sydney, October 2002, personal

communication. 3 Address read on behalf of Isabel Flick at the launch of Too Much Wrong: Report

on the Death of Edward James Murray, 26 November 1999, Human Rights &Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney.

4 Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December 1981.5 Audio recording of meeting, Western Women’s Council, Winbar, 7 April 1985.

Chapter 9 Land Rights on the Ground1 This was an important difference between the NSW Land Rights Act and the

later Federal Native Title Act. For the NSW Land Rights Act, only the presentstatus of the land is important. Its past as a grazing lease is not relevant as longas it has reverted to vacant Crown land. The Native Title Act, however, has ahistorical component built in, so that any alienation in the past, such as a lease,could wipe out Native Title once and for all, no matter if the land reverted toCrown land in the future.

2 There is a more detailed account of this important, complex meeting in Goodall, H., ‘ “Speaking What Our Mothers Want us to Say”: AboriginalWomen, Land and the Western Women’s Council, 1984–1985’, in Peggy Brock(ed.), Words and Silences: Aboriginal Women, Politics and Land, Allen & Unwin,Sydney, 2001.



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 261

Page 280: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

3 Walgett Shire Council to Isabel Flick, 20 January 1994. 4 Brian Egloff from the University of Canberra, Graham Ward from the Australian

Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and Luke Godwinfrom NPWS. See Ward, G., Egloff, B., Godwin, L., ‘Archaeology of an Aborigi-nal Historic Site: Recent Research at Collarenebri Aboriginal Cemetery’,Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1989 (2), pp. 62–7.

Chapter 10 Sisters1 NSW Department of Community Services. 2 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the Federally established and

Aboriginal-managed body overseeing a range of administrative and fundingprocesses in relation to indigenous communities around the country.

3 21 November 1995.4 These events were documented by the auditor’s report in 1996, which confirmed

the substance of Isabel’s accusations and fully corroborated her concerns.

Chapter 11 A Wider Focus1 Yanggal: vagina, often used as a convenient alternative to the English swearword

‘cunt’. Isabel was also using it as a pun on the English phrase ‘the big ‘‘c’’ ’—a colloquial euphemism for cancer.

2 Wanda: white man.3 The report was formally released November 1999, but drafts had been circulat-

ing over many months before. Memmott, P., Stacey, R. and Chambers, C. ‘AStudy of the Traditional Ownership of Eurool’, for the Indigenous Land Corpo-ration, 4 November 1999.

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 262

Page 281: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Aboriginal and Torres StraitIslander Commission(ATSIC), 208–9, 220, 262

Aboriginal AustralianFellowship, 125

Aboriginal co-operativeorganisations, 126–7

Aboriginal DevelopmentCorporation (ADC),163–4

Aboriginal Health Unit, 147Aboriginal Legal Service, 70,

115, 125–6, 143, 158Aboriginal Medical Service,

124–6, 130Aboriginal Protection Board,

24, 30, 72, 257, 258–9Aborigines’ Progress

Association (APA), 113Aborigines’ Welfare Board,

259Abschol, 113activists, 114–15, 123Adams, Jedda, 122–3, 253Adams, family, 257–8Adams, Les, 132Adams, Michael, 174Adams, Peter, 174Adams, Tony, 174affiliation and kin (‘meat’), 50alcohol

abuse of and drunkenness,31, 163

banned but ‘supplied’, 16,40

impact on children ofalcoholics, 184

rehabilitation programs,184–5

repeal of laws prohibitingsupply, 104

use/abuse, 31–2, 176, 183Alcoholics Anonymous, 184Alma (IF’s auntie), 4–5Amy, Aunty, 20Anderson, Michael, 137Andrews, Neil, 178Angledool ‘mission’ or Board

station, 20, 72, 258Annex (Aboriginal school in

Collarenebri), 41–5dancing lessons, 44

Jimmy Flick’s absences,43–4

lumpy milk, 44Anti-Apartheid Campaigns

against South Africa, 125apprenticed girls, 29–30, 258apprenticeships, 164, 173assimilation, 41Australian Aboriginal

Fellowship, 104Australian Aborigines’

Progressive Association,147

Australian Museum (Sydney),59

Australian Workers’ Union,260

Bandler, Faith, 151, 260Bannister, Cathy, 193Barlow, May, 196Barwon River, 13–14Bates, Badger, 196Bates, Jim James, 196Bates, William, 196Bathman, Jeannie, 30–31behaviour, 15–16Bellear, Bob, 167Bigambul tribe, 3, 4,Black Defence Group, 149Black Panthers (urban

community activists), 125,129

‘Block, the’ (Flick land atCollarenebri), 39–41, 64–5

blue–green algae, 210Bob (IF’s cousin), 23Boland, Florrie (IF’s cousin),

23, 33Bostock, Lester, 128breast screening, 228Brewarrina ‘mission’ or Board

station, 72, 93Brier, Tibby, 196Brindle, Ken, 125Brown, Arthur, 40Buchhorn, Dick, 234Bugmy, Alice, 196Bungie, Uncle, 73burial, traditional, 1Campbell, Jacko, 129, 148,

149, 170, 187Carowra Tank community, 258cemetery, 165, 238

babies graves, 235–6‘Bell’s Way’, 255computer database, 236confusion of identity, 237decoration of graves, 97–9heritage walk, 238kinship relates to graves’

position, 236–7land rights campaign and

Copeman family lease,194, 211

Native Title claimincludes, 241

road upgrade campaign,164–8, 168, 169

significance of, 168, 193,222

stories told, 238survey and documentation,

210–11, 235, 236–7Certificate of Exemption, 37,

259Chadwick, Virginia, 207Cherbourg mission, 4, 5, 48Chester, Judy, 205, 254children

holiday program planned,220

at risk, 218–20taken away (or threats to),

29, 54–5, 110–11, 257Children’s Hospital (Sydney),

95, 123Chinamen

gardens, 15children at school, 17–18

Clarke, Matron, 27–8cleanliness and hygiene, 43, 72

see also health and medicalcare

Clevens family, 2–4Clevens, Jane (née Boland;

‘Granny Jane’), 23, 24–5,32

Clevens, Marjorie (IF’s AuntyMargie), 233

Clevens, Susan (‘GrannySusan’), 3–4

Clint, Rev. Alf, 126clothes horse

misunderstanding, 50–2Collarenebri (‘Colle’)

‘border’ role, xv



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 263

Page 282: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

cemetery, 5–6map, 66rubbish tip, 10–11segregation, 162setting of town, xvwater supply, 14, 41, 195,

209–10see also Barwon River

Collarenebri Aboriginalsettlementsablution block, 132, 133,

162cultural centre, 213dipping place, 249–51, 250housing and funding,

169–74lagoon camp, 5, 6living conditions, 64,

93–4, 130‘Old Camp’

denial of access, 195established, 5–6layout, 6, 10life at, 64–9map, 7peaceful setting, 16–17photos, 8police patrols, 37,

67–70Paul Torzillo visits, 129–35shop proposed, 171social tensions, 163struggle to improve

services, 130–5traditional laws respected,

250–1Wollai camp, 93–4, 107,

147, 162, 169–74, 172,203

Collarenebri Apex Club, 94Collarenebri Hospital, 70

Aboriginal nursing aidesappointed, 112–13

fundraising for, 103secretary insists on

payment, 70–1segregated/Aboriginal

ward, 70, 71, 76–7racial intimidation by

nursing staff, 77–9Collarenebri School, 17, 20,

41, 99–101Annex school in old Town

Hall, 41–5schoolchildren, 17

Collymongle pastoral station,58–60Gamilaraay ceremonial

ground and carvedliving trees, 58–60,147, 211, 211–13, 224,239

Combo family, 6Combo, Dorrie, 104, 106Combo, Fanny (‘Granny

Fanny’), 5–6, 9, 11, 97Combo, George, 11control in community, 50Cook, Capt. James, 34–5Cook, Kevin

Black Defence Group, 149deaths in custody

campaign, 182–3and IF’s memoirs, xv, 245illness, 227land rights campaign, 189,

190–1at Tranby College, 128–9,

148, 213Tulladunna occupation,

178Cook, Miriki, 178Copeman family pastoral lease,

194Copeman, Mrs Clara, 194corroborees, 35–6, see also

dances, musiccotton-growing areas near

Wee WaaAWU involvement, 261employment instability,

176Joe and Isobelle Flick

move to, 122living conditions, 116,

117, 135strike over workers’

conditions, 117, 261working conditions,

115–17Council for Civil Liberties,

125Cox, June, 230cracker night, 83–4Craigie, Billy, 129Craigie, Lynne, 129, 150Creamer, Horrie, 165Croaker family, 1Croaker, Cecil, 17Cubby, George, 26Cunningham, Shirley, 17Cutler, Mark, 89, 90, 91, 92dances, 11, 34–5, 102–3

see also corroborees, musicDarling River, 210death registers reviewed, 236death, treatment of belongings

after, 107deaths in custody, 180–2

Eddie Murray’s death andcoroner’s inquiry, 177,181–2

Royal Commission, 183–4see also suicide

debutante ball, 218Denison, Charlie, 33Denison, Mrs Lizzie, 71Dennison, Autrey, 234Denyer, Harry, 132, 236Denyer, Henry, 132

and birth of BrendaWeatherall, 74, 75–6

defence of Aboriginalrights, 105–6, 108

Department of AboriginalAffairs (NSW), program-ming conferences, 166–7

Department of CommunityServices (NSW), 219

Dixon family (Angledool), 241Dixon, Pat, 210‘dog licence’, 38, 259domestic chores, 65domestic violence, 107, 220–1Doolan, Brian, 193Draper, Ellen, 52economy

of the 1950s, 88–9of the late 1960s, 114of 1980s, 162

educationAnnex (Aboriginal school

in Collarenebri), 41–5by correspondence, 20–2from the street, 38racial discrimination,

17–19, 41Sunday School in bough

shade, 19–22Sydney Aboriginal hostels,

122at Toomelah, 26by Tranby College, 163

elections and voting rights,103–4

employment, 88–9, 114, 173–4see also apprenticeships;

workEmu dance, 36Euhalayi Native Title case, 241Eurool property, 242–3family violence, see domestic

violenceFarmers’ Federation, 190Ferguson, Bill, 37–8, 147, 259Fernando, Jim, 94, 157Fernando, Rose (née Flick,

IF’s sister), 41, 94, 157,219, 232, 248Annex and public school

at Collarenebri, 42–7cemetery work, 238children at risk, 218–20education, 42–5gifts from Isabel and Clara,



Isabel Flick

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 264

Page 283: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

health, 228IF’s death, 254in Leeton, 94, 121marriage, 94at the Old Camp, 10reading, 46–7return to Collarenebri, 214

fighting, 16, 43, 49financial mismanagement, 223fires, 95, 202–3First World War, 1–2fishing and hunting, 14, 30,

33, 34Fitzpatrick, Stephen, 178Five Communities Program

(housing), 172Flick, Ann (IF’s aunt), 1Flick, Ann (IF’s paternal

grandmother), 1Flick, Aubrey (‘young Aub’,

son of IF), 143, 165, 201,205, 254

Flick, Barbara (IF’s niece),xviii, 91birth, 61, 62boarding school in

Armidale, 121burnt, and treatment,

95–6, 107, 123childhood, 73IF’s death, 254land rights campaign, 189,

190–1meets Paul Torzillo, 134Mutawintji blockade,

196–7picture show colour bar

broken, 90, 92–3in Sydney, 123, 125, 140Tulladunna Occupation,

178, 179, 180at Western Aboriginal

Legal Service, 158, 176Western Women’s

Council, 198see also Kennedy, Barbara

Flick, Ben (IF’s son), 53, 61,62, 121, 122, 252, 252,253

Flick, Bernadette, 124, 140,202, 218, 223

Flick, Bob, 70, 140Flick, Brenda, 74–7, 123, 140,

157, 201–2, 214, 253Flick, Ceatrice (IF’s sister), 32,

48, 234–6Flick, Celia (née Clevens, IF’s

mother), 1, 3,death, 157discipline of children, 57evacuation to Sydney

during 1976 flood, 150

health, 22, 156–7leaves family, 47, 85living on the Block, 139loses contact with parents

and sisters, 48relationship with husband,

47–8visits children at

Toomelah, 32Flick, Chantelle, 202Flick, Clare/Clara (IF’s sister),

see Mason, Clare/ClaraFlick, Deakin, 139, 205–6Flick family

contribution to Isabel’srecorded memories,xvii

Collarenebri country, 5homes, 5, 6, 9, 10, 23–5,

39–41, 107, 201, 208Native Title claims, 243

Flick, Gavin, 205–6Flick, Georgette, 168, 255, 255Flick, Isabel

activism, xiv–xv, 126–39administrative skills, 192,

216–17, 223birth and childhood,

xiv–xv, 1, 242birth of daughter Brenda

and travel to Moree,74–6

cemetery campaigns, 164–8,168, 169, 194, 210–11,232, 236–7, 252

Certificate of Exemption,37

challenges wage injustice,115–19

chooses burial site, 237–8cleaning work at school,

100–1community advice, 217Community Awards, 213community health work,

147community politics, 140–1confrontation about

seating at LibertyPicture Show, 89–93

cooking for shearers, 63–4country of, xiideath and burial, 254–5deaths in custody, 181–4defends friends against

racial slurs, 78defends Murri children at

school, 100–1defends Murri people

against police/courtaction, 108–10

diary, 229–30

dipping place, 249–51education, 18, 19–22, 33,

38, 39, 45family tree, xifootball team fundraising,

217–18funeral fund, 94–5Gamilaraay carved trees,

58–60, 147, 211,211–13, 224, 239

grandchildren, 201grief after Lubby’s death,

139, 146history of Aboriginal

people recorded, xvihonorary doctorate from

Tranby AboriginalCo-operative College,213

honours awarded, xivhouse at the Block, 107,

143–5, 144, 156household at 102 Johnston

Street Annandale,139–40

illness, xvi–xvii, 77, 129,139, 146–7, 153–4,155–6, 193, 222,224–6, 227, 253

Inard Oongalli: Women’sJourney (film), 24, 29,234–5, 238, 253, 259

interviews and recordingswith, xvii–xviii

land rights activism,149–50, 191

language learning, 50legal assistance to Mavis,

110–1lobbies ADC for housing,

164Local Land Council role,

193, 203, 223–4, 227,232, 252

Mangankali goannaappears, 255–6

Mangankali housingcompany, 133, 134–5,158, 162, 163–4,174–5, 222

mangankali (sand goanna)‘meat’, 50, 255–6

‘many different lives’, xviii,17

Medal of the Order ofAustralia, xiv, 201

medical care, struggle for,70–4, 127

meets Heather Goodall,140–1

in Moree Hospital, 76–7



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 265

Page 284: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

moves to Gunnedah,228–30

moves to Sydney, 122–3Mutawintji blockade,

196–7Native Title consultations,

241–4papers and letters, xvii,

255personal possessions burnt

after her death, 255personal qualities, xviii,

123, 140–1photographs of, 17, 108,

160, 167, 168, 172,181, 211, 229, 232,245, 246, 247, 248,252

places and significance,245–8

recordings of interviews(process), xvii–xviii,245–8

refuses family members’housing applications,169

on Regional ATSICCouncil, 209

regional connections,195–6

relationship with AubreyWeatherall, 70, 152,153, 164

relationship with mother,156–7, 232–3

relationship with TedThorne, 160–1, 225,229, 239–40

retirement, 193returns to Collarenebri,

157–60and Rose’s return to

Collarenebri, 214–16Royal Far West Children’s

Health Schemeinvolvement, 103, 105,107–8

sense of humour, 215–16sex education by father,

48–9in South Sydney

Community Aid, 127support for better school

facilities, 101, 140at Toomelah, 23–38at Tranby, 227, 252–3Tulladunna Occupation,

178union activism, 62, 125visit to mother’s relatives

in Queensland, 233–4,240

white supporters of, 131women’s refuge, 107work at Lloyd-Jones home,

152–5work at stations, 50–1,

61–2work in Royal Prince

Alfred Hospital,123–4, 147

Flick, Isabella, 202Flick, Isobelle (née Walford,

IF’s sister-in-law), 102, 211birth of children, 61, 77funeral fund, 74–5and IF’s death, 254move to Wee Waa, 122,

175move to Wildflower Ridge,

107Tulladunna Occupation,

178, 178, 180Flick, Jimmy (IF’s brother), 41,

42, 139at school, 43–4

Flick, Joe (IF’s brother), 138,254childhood at Toomelah,

13, 26–7, 39crystalled glass for graves,

98at dances, 102–3Land Council campaign,

205–6, 206move to Wee Waa, 122,

175move to Wildflower Ridge,

107photographs, 17, 82support for Aboriginal

nursing aides, 112–13

Tulladunna Occupation,178, 178, 180

Wee Waa cotton fieldsand campaigning forconditions, 135, 136,175

working with father, 15Flick, Joey (IF’s nephew), 82,

142, 142, 254Flick, Johnny (IF’s nephew),

61, 62Flick, Karen

activism, 158, 176childhood, 108Collymongle carved trees,

211deaths in custody

campaign, 182, 183and IF’s death, 254, 255interviews and records of

family, 258

Land Rights Actamendmentdemonstration, 182,183

Tulladunna occupation,180

Flick, Larry, 70, 122–3, 201,253, 254, 255

Flick, Lavinia (‘Lubby’, IF’ssister), 61, 85, 90, 121–2,139, 225–6, 260

Flick, Lindsay (IF’s brother),15, 39, 40, 61, 76, 102,155–6, 160, 258

Flick, Lindsay (IF’s nephew),61

Flick, Mark, 201Flick, Mick (IF’s father), 2, 84

alcohol use, 47attempts sex education for

children, 48–9and Barbara burnt in fire,

95, 96childhood, 1–2community participation,

80death and funeral, 96–7, 99defence of children, 54–5defence of Gamilaraay

ceremonial trees,59–60

discipline and guidance ofchildren, 49, 57, 99

involvement withgrandchildren, 53,83–7, 96, 252

militant attitude, 54pride of being black, 42relationship with wife,

47–8RSL club membership

rejected, 54, 80–1service in World War I,

1–2, 53–4, 80–1soldier resettlement block

applications, 40tries to visit children at

Toomelah, 32union membership, 62work on stations, 39, 54,

62, 80, 85Flick, Mick (IF’s nephew), 61Flick, Patsy, 85, 176Flick, Rose (IF’s sister) see

Fernando, RoseFlick, Rosie (née Weatherall,

IF’s sister-in-law), 10, 102,248, 254, 258Collarenebri school, 41–2laundress at hospital, 71marriage to Lindsay Flick,



Isabel Flick

Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 266

Page 285: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Sunday School in boughshade, 19–22, 239

Flick, Tjanara, 255Flick, Tony (IF’s son), 142,

158, 164, 172–3, 191, 201,202, 211, 228–9, 254

Flick-Kennedy, 140, 168floods

impact on westerncommunities (1976),150

influence on Reservehousing, 171, 172

food, 40lumpy milk at school, 44rations from mission,

30–1football team fundraising,

217–18Foundation for Aboriginal

Affairs, 104, 125, 260Freedom Ride (1965), xiv, xvi,

104–5French, Barney, 172funeral fund, 94–5, 103funerals, 15gambling, 65–6games, 11, 12, 14Gamilaraay tribe, 1

ceremonial ground andcarved living trees,58–9, 147, 211,211–13, 224, 239

Gibbs, Pearlie, 147, 183Goodall, Heather, 140–1, 151,

151, 179, 245Goodooga, 207government policies of

removal of Aboriginals,4–5, 6, 232–3, 235

Grazcotts shearing contractors,63

Greiner, Nick, 204Groves, Bertie, 37, 147, 259Gunnedah, 228–30

Festival Committee, 231hall, 34Hall, Harry, 104, 115, 117,

123, 137, 138, 260Hall, Howard, 165–6Hall, Jessie, 158, 230–1Hall, Linda, 94, 165–6Hall, Ray, 216Hansen, Dicky, 74, 75Hardy, Billy, 9, 20, 21, 258Hardy, Bob, 258health and medical care, 22,

30activism in Sydney, 125–6diseases after pesticide

spraying, 135–7epidemics on Protection

Board stations, 259headlice inspection, 100–1IF’s attempts for

improvements, 70in Sydney, 120–1infectious diseases

accusation, 71–2, 93quarantine (1956), 72–4trachoma epidemics, 72,

259traditional remedies, 30see also cleanliness and

hygieneHenry (killed at sea), 29Hing, Kong, 15Hollows, Fred, 125, 130Holmes (Lloyd-Jones’

chauffeur), 152, 153–4housing, 8, 9

Aboriginal builders, 170at other communities, 170building program, 208bureaucratic

standardisationattempted, 170

campaign for Reservehousing, 169–74

community consultation,170, 172–3

community housingdevelopments, 150

described by schoolchildren, 45

failures of design andconstruction, 132–3

IF refuses family membersapplications, 169

lack of control over siting,conditions andservices, 150

Land Councils’ role in,192–3, 207–8

local authority servicesabsent, 208

mia mias, 23–4, 24priority listing, 195at ‘the Block’, 41, 64, 208at the Wollai, 93–4, 107at Toomelah mission, 23–5

Hunter, Dorrie, 196Hunter, Edna, 158Hynch, Doreen (née

Weatherall, IF’s sister-in-law)activism, 158, 178cemetery work, 238, 254childhood, 10friendships, 231, 248funeral fund, 94–5life at the Old Camp, 64–5water supply and drainage

at the Reserve, 132

Hynch, Graham, 163Hynch, Ted (Uncle Daduwin),

26Inard Oongali: Women’s Journey

(film), 24, 29, 234–5, 238,253, 259

Indigenous Land Corporation(ILC), 242–3

industrial contamination, 176Interim Land Council, 191Jarrett, Ada, 234, 234Jerrinja Land, 187Kalokerinos, Dr Archie,

79–80, 95, 123, 130, 132Kaluma Station, 207Kate, Aunty/Granny, 25, 31Kath (Lloyd-Jones maid),

154–5keeping places, 212–13, 239Kendall, Carol, 234–5Kennedy family, 19, 258Kennedy, Barbara, see Flick,

BarbaraKennedy, Bill, 140Kennedy, Dezi, see Flick-

KennedyKennedy, Gordon, 103Kennedy, Granny Eva, 18, 19Kennedy, Vicki, 103Kerr, Chris, 227Kerr, Sir John, 153Khan, Aunty Bessie (Bea; née

Mundy), 10, 12, 130, 239,247, 247, 251

kin and affiliation (‘meat’),50

kinship and grave positions,236–7

Kirinari Aboriginal SchoolBoys’ Hostel, 142

Kostanardi, Vivi, 127Lamb, Keithie, 173Lamb, Rosie, 96land councils

administration skillsnecessary, 192

housing management role,192–3, 195

Local Land Councils, 188,191, 204, 223–4, 232

Regional Land Councils,188–9, 191, 204, 207

share of land fund, 191–2State Land Councils, 189,

204–8land rights

Aboriginal cemetery,193–4

basis for claims, 188campaign for, 147–8fund to purchase land, 188Greiner amendments to



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 267

Page 286: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Land Rights Act,204–8

Interim Land Council, 191Land Rights Act (1983;

NSW), 148Land Rights Bill, 189–90legislation, 118, 186Mutawintji blockade,

196–7Northern Territory Land

Rights Act, 189–90opposition by conservative

State Government,203–4

organisation andcommunication, 187–9

relationship betweenpeople and land, 197

Select Committee hearingsand 1981 Report, 186,187

validation of revocationsof reserve land, 190

see also Tranby AboriginalCo-operative College

Lands Trust, 149languages, 260

Bigambul, 3Gamilaraay, 50, 234,

238–9, 257lingo (traditional

language), 32, 34–5Yuwalaraay, 50, 257

Langton, Marcia, 149laws

of community, 16police supervision, 16, 22,

37, 40Laws, John, 153legal advice and services, 70,

110–1, 115, 125–6, 143,158

Liberty Picture Showconfrontation, xiii–xiv

Lizzy (IF’s cousin), 31Lloyd-Jones, Charles, 152Lloyd-Jones, Lady, 152–4Lloyd-Jones, Sir Charles, 153Longswamp (property near

Collarenebri), 39–40Mabo case, 240McGarn, Dr Frank, 72, 74, 77,

78McGrady, Carrie, 33–4McGrady, Les, 234McGrady, Ursula, 234McGrady, Widdy, 33–4McGregor, Maggie (née

Boland; IF’s aunt), 150,159

McGregor, Roslyn, 163MacIntosh, Cheeky, 181

McIntosh, Eileen (néeWibble), 259

MacIntosh, Ronnie, 25, 34, 35Mangankali housing company,

133, 134–5, 158, 162,163–4, 174, 222

map of Isabel’s country, xiimarriage

mass wedding, 29–30and ‘meat’ (kin and

affiliation), 50relationship between Flick

parents, 47–8Mason, Bruce, 140Mason, Clare/Clara (née Flick,

IF’s sister) 41, 42–3, 52,108, 232, 254childhood, 10living with mother, 139marital problems, 157

Mason, Edgar, 20Mason, Freddy, 20, 52, 102Mason, Geoffrey, 76Mason, Harry,–2Mason, Jacqui, 140Mason, Noel, 140, 174, 184Mason, Pat, 140Mason, Pearl (née Parker;

‘Nanna Pearlie’), 9–10, 65,75, 159, 239, 258

Mason, Shirley, 70–1mass migration from Tingha,

25–6, 258Maude, Aunty, 11Mazza, Bob, 128meat (kin and affiliation), 50,

260mia mias, 24, 24Mills, Dougie, 17Mills, Rene, 230–1minister at Collarenebri, 91,

109, 110Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs,

167Miscellaneous Workers’

Union, 100missions and stations, 257, 259Mogilla, 207Moongulla station, 20‘Mootwingee’ National Park

blockade, see Mutawintjisite

moving about, 5Mullock, Ron, 172Mundy family, 6Mundy, Hiram, 97Mundy, Kenny, 11Mundy, Pat, 218Mundy, Robert, 73–4Munro, Lyle, 117Murdi-Paaki Regional ATSIC

Council, 209

Murphy, Hector, 9, 13Murray family, 9, 185Murray, Arthur, 176, 177, 181Murray, Barry, 164Murray, Bertha, 95–6, 123Murray, Eddie, 177, 181–2, 185Murray, Frank, 174Murray, Leila, 176, 177, 181Murray, Michael, 174Murray, Myrtle, 95–6, 123Murray, Robert, 108–10Murri, 257Museum of Queensland, 59Museum of South Australia,

59music, 36

see also corroborees, dancesMutawintji site, blockade,

196–7National Aboriginal Congress,

117, 261National Parks and Wildlife

Service (NPWS), 234Native Title

consultations, 241–3Eurool property purchase,

242–4land purchase under,

242–4Native Title Act (Cwth),

261rights and definitions,

240–1New South Wales Aboriginal

Land Council, 186–7New South Wales National

Parks Service, 165New South Wales State

Aboriginal Employmentfunding, 164

Nicholls, Melva, 211Nora, Aunty, 26North-Western Regional Land

Council, 195, 206O’Donnell, Maureen, 196, 198Old Toomelah, 23older people in community,

49–50Orana Haven Centre, 184Orcher, Kylie, 168Orcher, Sonny, 176Orcher, Winkie, 168O’Shane, Pat, 167, 172Pacey, Richard, 128Palm Island, 5Pansy (IF’s friend at

Collarenebri), 159Parents and Citizens

Association, 101Parliamentary Committee

investigations (1966),105–6

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 268

Page 287: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Pat, John, 182Patten, Jack, 147Peakes, Mr (Presbyterian

minister, Collarenebri), 20Peakes, Mrs, 18Perkins, Charles, 204, 260pesticide spraying and

poisoning, 135–8Peters, Lorraine, 122Peters, Peggy, 164Peters, Sally Ann, 164Pickering, Ted, 207pictures, 14–15police

behaviour observed andreported by activists,125

discrimination and abuseby, 16, 22, 37, 40,67–9, 113, 184

fear of and resistance to,67–70

prisoners work for, 114support for Aboriginal

education, 41porcupine (pikipila, echidna),

9, 258Presbyterian church, 18Punch, Marion, 230punishment, 13, 16racial discrimination

‘Crow’s Corner’, Walgett,55–6

about IF’s supposed alcoholconsumption, 155–6

about infectious diseases,71–2

alcohol availability, 104at Collarenebri Hospital,

70–1, 77–8at dancing lessons, 44–5at Liberty Picture Show,

xiii–xiv, 17nursing aides at hospital,

112–13at open air picture theatre,

89–90resistance to, 89–119at RSL club, 54in schools, 17–22, 42, 93segregated at hospital, 55at Slim Dusty concert, 55soldier resettlement blocks,

40voting rights, 103–4wages and conditions,

114–19white people’s rejection of,

56–8, 118–19Randall, Rev. Roy, 95Reece, Fred, 25relationships

between black and whitein Collarenebri, xvi

between family members,49

between Flick parents,47–8

see also fights, racialdiscrimination

rights and citizenship, 37–8,53–4

Roach, Vera, 123Rona-Tranby Foundation, xv

see also Tranby AboriginalCo-operative College

Rose, Debbie, 167Rose, Mavis, 140, 151Royal Far West Scheme, 103,

105, 107–8, 121Royal Prince Alfred Hospital,

123–4, 147, 227RSL (Returned Services

League), 40, 54, 80, 96–7‘Rules, The’ (male initiation),

1, 257Ryan, Nookie, 95Salt Water or Nagurabi

Corroboree, 34–5school uniform, 46Second World War, 39self-determination, 106sexual experiences

feelings between girls andboys, 48–9

sexual exploitation bywhite male staff, 52–3

sharing of food, 40shearers

conditions for, 63cooking for, 63Grazcotts contractors, 63and unionism, 62

shelf companies, 126Shepherd, Olive, 18‘skin’ kinship sections, 260soldier resettlement blocks, 40songs, 35, 259Stallworthy family’s rejection

of racism, 56, 91Stallworthy, Dawn, 123Stallworthy, Walter, 73, 95stations and missions, 257, 259Stewart, Tommy, 142–3Student Action for Aborigines

(SAFA), 113see also Freedom Ride

suicide, 177, 182, 183, 184Sunday School, 19–22Susan, Queen (at Welltown),

106Swane, Rev. Peter, 123swimming, 13Sydney, 120–1

Collarenebri residentsliving in, 123

inner western suburbs, 123,125

telephone service, 177tennis courts, 34Tent Embassy, Canberra, 128Terry, John, 158, 198testing for cancer, 228Thomas, Guboo Ted, 148Thomas, Michelle, 230Thompson, Peter, 129, 150,

151, 158, 160, 170, 178,234

Thorne, Colin, 6Thorne, Dulcie, 6, 17Thorne, Edna, 17Thorne, Gracie, 17Thorne, Ida (née Murphy), 6,

12Thorne, Jessie, 6Thorne, John, 17Thorne, Josie, 94, 102, 120,

158, 159, 231Thorne, Keith, 163Thorne, Linda, 6Thorne, Margie, 6Thorne, Rene, 17Thorne, Roy, 6, 102, 103, 138,

158, 159, 184, 230Thorne, Ted

childhood, 6, 13, 247Collymongle trees, 239–40at IF’s death, 253, 254–5photographs, 160, 168, 169relationship with IF, 53,

160–1, 225, 252Thunderbolt family, 9Tibooburra community, 258Tingha, 25–6, 258Tobin, Peter

Aboriginal Legal Service,115, 143

Aborigines’ ProgressAssociation, 113–14

death, 155friendship with IF, 129,

140Toomelah mission or Board

station (near Boggabilla),22, 23–38arrival at, 23–4cultural renaissance, 234education, 26, 28handyman, 28, 35housing, 24–5manager and Matron’s

role, 27–29, 35manager’s house, 36mass wedding, 29–30rations, 30–1recording memories, 234–5



Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 269

Page 288: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman

Sunday School, 27, 27traditional languages

banned, 32treatment room, 30see also Old Toomelah

‘traditional owner’ definitionand research, 240–5

Torzillo, Jack, 155, 156Torzillo, Judy, 155–6Torzillo, Paul, 129–35, 140,

151, 151, 168, 253, 254training, 173–4Tranby Aboriginal Co-

operative College, 126,128, 147, 148, 163, 174,177, 182, 213, 227see also Rona-Tranby

Foundation; landrights

Trapman, Teddy, 34–5Troutman family, 12trust, 31Tulladunna

cotton-workers campingarea, 135

deaths and healthproblems, 135–6, 175

occupation about ‘ThePiggery’ camp site,175–181, 178, 179

Tweedie, Penny, 249unemployment relief, 163Union of Australian Women,

xv, 245voting rights and elections,

103–4Walford family, 61Walford, Sylvia (‘Nanna

Sylvia’), 61, 99Walgett Community Welfare

Office, 132Walgett Shire Council, 168,

210Walgett, 55–6, 104war veterans, 179–80,

181Ward, Egloff and Goddard

group, 236wash days at the river, 13water supply, 14, 41, 195,

209–10Waterside Workers Federation,

137–8Weatherall, Aubrey (partner of

IF), 17, 70, 102, 152, 153,164family connections, 233–4family moves to Sydney,

123housing, 201–2and IF’s illness and death,

253Land Rights campaign,

205–6Weatherall, Dennis, 70Weatherall, Doreen, 42Weatherall, Eadie (née Hardy),

258Weatherall family, 9, 61, 258Weatherall, Ned, 258Weatherall, Patty, 140Weatherall, Rene, 17Weatherall, Roma, 70Weatherall, Rose, 258, 258Weatherall, Shirley (née

Cunningham), 70, 130,133

wedding, mass, 29–30Wee Waa, cotton industry,

114–15, 122camp conditions, 116, 122,

135, 136–8pesticide contamination,

135–8roads’ impact on flood-

prone land, 150strike over workers’

conditions, 137–8Wee Waa Aboriginal

Advancement Association,138, 138, 176

Welfare officers, 5, 110Welltown station, 3–4Western Aboriginal Legal

Service (WALS), 158, 176Western Women’s Council,

198–201alcohol banned, 200bush foods, 199discussions, 200goals, 198, 199, 201pastoral lease, 198travel to camp, 199, 200Winbar camp, 198–201

white peoplelittle contact with, 29mixed-race babies, 53rejection racial

discrimination, 56–8,118–19

relationships withAboriginals, xvi

support IF, 135see also racial

discriminationWhiteman, Granny, 35–6Whitlam Labor Government,

126Whitton, Julie, 151, 178, 187,

234, 234, 259Wilcannia, community

housing plan, 150Wildflower Ridge, house at,

107Wilgas property, 85Winbar camp, 198–201Winters, Tombo, 151, 187, 196Wirrabilla property, 40women

celebration of work of, 239heritage documentation,

234–5woodcutting, 14Woods, Ada (‘Granny Ada’),

61, 83, 98–9, 99, 260work

in cotton-growing areas,114–15, 116, 122, 135

men’s, 15, 39misunderstood

instructions, 50–2obedience emphasised,

50–1travel further for, 121wages, 50, 115women’s, 50see also apprenticeships;

employmentYarrawanna Creek, 3, 4Young, Dougie, 259Young, Marjorie (née Flick)

(Rose Flick’s daughter), 82,232

Isabel Flick


Isabel Flick TEXT PAGES 27/2/04 8:56 AM Page 270